The (Recurring) Trouble at the Brent Spence Bridge

The latest Brent Spence study reminds us we’re trapped in an eternal, repeating hell. Happy Groundhog Day, y’all.

The Brent Spence Bridge presents a particular challenge for crossers. There’s the superstitious tradition of holding your breath while on a bridge, and this one gives you all the more reason to do so: There’s a greater-than-usual danger that this crossing might be how it ends. After all, chunks of the bridge have fallen on cars; cars have fallen off the bridge; there are no shoulders or safety lanes, just barreling semis to keep you in line. On the flip side, after decades we’ve realized that we should not, nay, cannot hold our collective breath for a new bridge to materialize despite promises of a new day coming. The forecast remains a bleak, recurring nightmare of déjà vu.

Which takes us to February 2 in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania: The tiles flip to 6:00 as Sonny and Cher erupt in “I Got You Babe.” Bill Murray, dba Phil Connors, arises to report on the nation’s furriest meteorologist, gets trapped in a blizzard, and gets…trapped. In that day. At that B&B. Talking to Ned. Over and over and over.

With the same desperation in which Phil memorizes the minutiae of that day, frantically seeking a new one, our region has pined for a new Brent Spence Bridge. Quick rundown: Designed to carry 80,000 vehicles a day, the bridge opened in 1963. In ’85, away went the shoulders to add a fourth lane. The National Bridge Inventory had already marked it functionally obsolete when, in 2009, it was moving more than double the projected number of vehicles on a daily basis. In 2011, per the Federal Highway Authority, it was the nation’s 15th most congested spot; in 2014, it was named the fourth most congested freight location. (We’re number four! We’re number four! Hey, wait…)

Come 2015, we seemed to have a real shot at breaking the loop. Then Governors Kasich and Beshear (of Ohio and Kentucky, respectively) traversed the political aisle and the river to come together on a plan, with the intention of starting construction in 2017. You know from months of standstill commutes that we did have some major bridge maintenance last year, but alas: There’s no new bridge underway. We’re still waking up to Sonny and Cher. Largely, this is because the Kentucky General Assembly—driven by campaign antics of Northern Kentucky reps—voted to prohibit tolls from being used to fund the bridge. Ever. Despite tolls being used to cross the same river, with their blessing, on the new I-65 bridge in Louisville. Despite a later poll showing that people supported tolls as a funding mechanism if it meant getting a new bridge. It’s been a very long day; we want out of Punxsutawney.

The thing is the funding. Back in 2003 (yes, 15 years ago now), the project cost was a reported $750 million. The latest published number: $2.6 billion. We’re still looking at three years of predevelopment and four to five for construction, and that’s only once—LOL, if—a funding strategy manifests.

In 2016, current Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin commissioned yet another study to examine our continuing bridge needs. On December 19, 2017, it was released to the public, essentially spending 70 pages telling us the same thing we’ve known for as long as we’ve been trapped in this never-ending hell: We need a new Brent Spence Bridge. Sure, Bevin publicly acknowledged as much, but before you get too excited, let us now quote the FAQ released with the study: Q: When will the new Brent Spence Bridge project begin? A: Work could begin as soon as a funding plan is identified. […] Q: How long will it take to get funding for the preliminary tasks? A: This study did not evaluate funding options. Funding sources have yet to be determined.

Way back in 2004, Cincinnati Business Courier’s Joe Hoffecker drew an editorial cartoon of a wheelchair-bound man, mostly jowls, staring at a hurdle that meets his eye line. His chair is labeled “Brent Spence Bridge”; the bar “Funding.” In 2015, around the time of the failed Kasich-Beshear plan, Hoffecker revisited his muse. This time, the aforementioned governors stood at a podium announcing the “New Brent Spence Grand Opening!”—a five-lane highway dead-ending into the river, where the Anderson Ferry awaits. Based on this latest study, the cartoon might have been more prescient than pretense.

Don’t forget your life vests, travelers. It’s a cold one out there today.

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