Where does the Brent Spence Bridge rank among Kentucky's road improvement needs?

Posted at 6:00 AM, Jul 20, 2017
and last updated 2017-07-20 10:13:47-04

COVINGTON, Ky. -- Most would agree, on both sides of the Ohio River, that there's one bridge needing attention above all others in the Midwest region, if not nationwide.

Let's all say it together: the Brent Spence Bridge.

As it turns out, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet's preliminary list of prioritized roadway projects seems to agree: the Brent Spence Bridge was the only bridge listed out of 70 roadway projects statewide that could be considered for next year's transportation budget.

Repairs and the construction of a sister bridge alongside the existing Brent Spence came in at numbers 12 and 13, respectively. Both projects would need to be approved by the Kentucky General Assembly to begin.

Unless you moved down to live in Mammoth Cave two decades ago, no doubt you've been run over with facts, reports and opinions on what to do about the aging and increasingly congested corridor carrying Interstates 71 and 75 from Covington, Kentucky into Cincinnati.

"(I)t no longer addresses traffic demands of the corridor. It’s over capacity of its intended design," said Nancy Wood, spokesperson for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet's sixth district, in a previous interview. 

Opened in 1963, engineers designed the bridge and its approaches from the north and south to carry roughly 80,000 vehicles per day. Today, it carries between 180,000 and 200,000 vehicles per day -- including more than 3 percent of the nation's gross domestic product each year.

Is Brent Spence's ranking high enough? 

"Something has to be done," Bob Yeager, chief engineer for Kentucky Transportation Cabinet District 6, told WCPO earlier this year.  "It's structurally sound but functionally obsolete."

RELATED: What does 'functionally obsolete' even mean?

It's no secret that the Brent Spence Bridge causes many motorists anxiety and creates traffic problems on an almost daily basis. The bridge contains no emergency lanes in either direction, meaning even a broken-down vehicle can cause major backups. Various sources, including Washington D.C.-based magazine The Hill and President Donald Trump himself have identified the bridge as one of the nation's top "infrastructure emergencies."

So Brent Spence work sitting at ranks of 12 and 13 might seem less-than-encouraging to Tri-State motorists who rely on the bridge every day.

Naitore Djigbenou, acting executive director of public affairs for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, explained that the rankings are compiled using data sets and other qualifying factors, such as crash history, congestion, cost and potential economic benefits. The list comes out of Governor Matt Bevin's SHIFT initiative, which seeks to derive transportation and infrastructure funding decisions on a data-based model.

The Brent Spence Bridge sits in a sort of gray area as far as SHIFT rankings system: It is a project of statewide significance but at the same time is considered reliant on outside sources of funding.

"Preservation or improvement projects for existing bridges were filtered from the list of 70 projects because they are funded through a separate pool of asset management funds that are earmarked for maintenance projects," Djigbenou said. "While it appears on the list and is an important part of the future transportation needs in Kentucky, we are aware that it would require an additional funding source."

That is to say, both the states of Ohio and Kentucky understand there will have to be some sort of outside funding to get the $2.6 billion project completed. The Brent Spence's presence on this list could indicate how vital the bridge's improvement is both statewide and nationally.

The ranking processes for roadway and bridge projects are determined by things like improving safety, mitigating congestion, improving infrastructure, crash history, and a cost-benefit ratio. 

Still under construction

Djigbenou also emphasized that these are preliminary rankings, and have not accounted for regional priorities, which she said the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet ultimately will factor into its final recommendations to the General Assembly.

Under the SHIFT program, for the first time, Kentucky Transportation Cabinet road and bridge project recommendations combine statewide-identified needs as well as regionally identified needs.

The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet split the states' 12 transportation districts into four groups of three. Northern Kentucky, District 6, is included with the metropolitan areas of Louisville and Lexington:

SHIFT regional breakdown for prioritizing statewide roadway project funding recommendations. (Provided)

The idea is that a project might be recognized by the state as high-priority, but the region might prefer work done on a different project, or vice versa

"(Each region gets) to prioritize needs in their regions, and by doing that it really helps certain projects be raised to the top," Djigbenou said. 

The process also allows for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet to maximize the prioritizing process, she said: "We don't want to have a list that has 1,500 projects," she said. "The process of getting input from the local level and combining that with our statewide input just serves to condense that list."

Regional recommendations will come in the fall, prior to the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet's final recommendation for its six-year transportation plan recommendation to the General Assembly.

Pat LaFleur reports on transportation for WCPO. Connect with him on Twitter (@pat_laFleur).