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Roebling district braces for another long bridge closure, but they've been here before

Sky 9 overlooks the John A. Roebling Bridge connecting downtown Cincinnati and Covington's Licking Riverside District, photographed Jan. 29, 2021.
Posted at 6:00 PM, Jan 31, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-01 12:55:26-05

COVINGTON, Ky. — When Josh Niederhelman bought the vacant lot on the southwest corner of Fourth and Greenup streets in 2019, he had no way of anticipating the twists and turns the next 18 months would bring.

"The timing was unfortunate," said the Roebling district resident and owner of Covington Yard, an open-air food and dining destination that opened last year, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was picking up speed.

Covington Yard uses repurposed shipping containers and insulated igloo seating, photographed with Sky 9 on Jan. 29, 2021.
Covington Yard uses repurposed shipping containers and insulated igloo seating, photographed with Sky 9 on Jan. 29, 2021.

"By a stroke of luck, we have this more of an outdoor venue, which has been beneficial for people to be able to get out and enjoy an entertainment atmosphere," he said.

Nearly a year into the pandemic, Niederhelman and his neighboring business owners, by and large, have adapted as best they can to the "new normal" ushered in by the coronavirus. The neighborhood's business district is lined with streets taken over by expanded patio seating and tents with heaters to allow social distancing.

What's not so lucky: They've made the adjustment just in time now for another major disruption in the form of the nine-month closure of the neighborhood's primary gateway, the John A. Roebling Bridge.

"It's got to end," said Covington's city manager, David Johnston. "We are all frustrated with the impacts of everything happening on our businesses, but we will do what we can."

Covington City Manager David Johnston speaks with WCPO on video conference, Jan. 28, 2021.
Covington City Manager David Johnston speaks with WCPO on video conference, Jan. 28, 2021.

WCPO has done extensive reporting on the economic impact the Roebling's closure can have on the Licking Riverside District -- colloquially known as "Roebling Point." That's because, when it shuts down again next month, it will be only the latest in a string of extended closures over the last few years.

In 2018, the bridge closed for four months after a driver slammed his car into a cable girder. When sandstone chunks began falling from the bridge's north tower a year later, the bridge shut down again for months while crews did repairs. This past November, the bridge closed again, this time for three days after commercial truck drivers attempted to use it as an alternative to the Brent Spence Bridge after that interstate span abruptly closed.

The upcoming nine-month closure is part of a 10-month restoration project the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet has been planning for years, meant to prevent any further sandstone crumbling like what occurred in 2019. Because the iconic, 154-year-old bridge is a national historic landmark, crews must meet meticulous specifications for its restoration and repair.

MAP: How to navigate around the Roebling Bridge closure

Johnston agreed the repair work has been a long time coming, but he said he would have preferred more notice about when exactly the work would begin.

"We know the work needs to be done to protect that bridge; it's just unfortunate that the announcement doesn't have much time cushion," he told WCPO. "The worst part of the timing is our businesses are already being affected due to COVID. Now, this."

KYTC District 6 announced Thursday that the bridge will reduce to one lane of traffic on Monday, Feb. 1. Two weeks later, the bridge will close to all vehicles and remain shut down at least until November. One of the bridge's two pedestrian walkways will remain open during the project.

Niederhelman said he's trying to stay optimistic despite what could become a long year of reduced traffic through the area.

Josh Niederhelman speaks with WCPO at Covington Yard, Jan. 29, 2021.
Josh Niederhelman speaks with WCPO at Covington Yard, Jan. 29, 2021.

"I think everyone understands that these repairs are needed and that it will benefit everyone in the long run," he said. "In the short term ... we are going to try to increase some of the wayfinding and make sure that people are able to navigate through the Covington area."

Niederhelman did not elaborate much further about those plans beyond indicating the possibility of new signage and targeted social media campaigns meant to educate newcomers to the area on how to get there.

"People are conditioned to use the suspension bridge," he said. "When that's not an option, there are four other bridges you can take to get here. What we want to do is increase awareness, increase the understanding of folks from outside of the area on how to get to Covington Yard and the Roebling Point area."