Who Will Pay To Fix That Bridge In Ohio?

Originally published on September 16, 2011 9:58 am

The gun-metal-colored bridge spanning the Ohio River opened almost half a century ago with an 85,000-vehicle-per-day capacity. Today, the Brent Spence Bridge carries nearly twice that and is rated functionally obsolete by the National Bridge Inventory.

As part of his jobs creation plan, President Obama will be making a trip to that bridge next week. You may not have heard of it, but chances are you own a lot of things that have been across it. It's one of the busiest trucking routes in North America.

Obama mentioned the bridge in his recent speech to Congress as an example of the type of infrastructure project his jobs plan could fund. It probably doesn't hurt that the bridge lies just outside the Cincinnati congressional district of House Speaker John Boehner — and it runs to Kentucky, home to Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Jenny Bass crosses the bridge on her way to and from work, and notices that traffic in the other direction is always stalled.

"When I'm heading to work in the morning, I'm going south, and coming home, I'm going north — so the traffic is usually in the opposite direction," Bass says.

Mark Policinski, the executive director of the Ohio Kentucky Indiana Regional Council of Governments, says Bass isn't exaggerating. He said the bridge isn't structurally obsolete, it just doesn't function. Traffic regularly backs up an average of three miles per day on each side of the river.

The double-decker bridge carries two interstates, including I-75, which stretches from Michigan to Florida. Policinski says replacing the bridge isn't just a local problem.

"Over 2,000 miles of that trade corridor crosses this little rusted ribbon of bridge across the Ohio River, and unless this bridge is augmented in some way, not only is it going to cause congestion and more air pollution, but it's going to have a dramatic impact on this country's ability to move goods north to south, particularly east of the Mississippi," he says.

In fact, Policinski says, 3 percent of the nation's gross domestic product crosses the Brent Spence each year. The route is only expected to get busier as the expanded Panama Canal pumps even more freight along the corridor.

"It is a bridge that is a bridge to everywhere," Policinski says.

In the 1980s, safety shoulders were removed to increase capacity. Mere inches separate the outside lanes from the edge of the bridge. Even a small accident can snarl traffic for hours.

Commuter Alice Pope says crossing the Brent Spence makes her anxious.

"If I broke down, there's nowhere to go, and if I'm in the middle of the lane, what happens?" Pope asks. "I sort of have this weird fear that a truck's going to smash into my Mini, and I'm going to go into the Ohio."

Her concerns aren't unfounded. Just a few months ago, a man died after being knocked over the side of the bridge. He'd run out of gas and was standing on the bridge when a crash pushed him over the rail.

Stefan Spinosa, the Brent Spence project manager for the Ohio Department of Transportation, says reconfiguring the bridge corridor carries an estimated price tag of nearly $2.4 billion. There's bipartisan support for expanding the bridge, but no one knows where the money will come from.

"Whether it's federal government, whether it's the state motor fuel taxes, that's still up in the air," Spinosa says. "The president's job bill could have an impact, I don't know."

Even if Congress comes up with most of the money, states on either side of the bridge must find the rest of the money, and officials in Kentucky and Ohio say it won't be easy to make that happen.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

As part of his jobs tour, President Obama will visit a bridge next week.

P: There's a bridge that needs repair between Ohio and Kentucky. It's on one of the busiest trucking routes in North America.

NORRIS: It's called the Brent Spence Bridge and it connects Republican Speaker John Boehner's part of Ohio with Kentucky, home to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Even if you've never heard of the Brent Spence Bridge, you likely own a lot of things that have been across it. As Tana Weingartner of member station WVXU in Cincinnati reports, the bridge is narrow and the traffic terrible.

TANA WEINGARTNER: The gunmetal-colored bridge spanning the Ohio River opened almost a half century ago with an 85,000-vehicle-per-day capacity. Today, it carries nearly twice that and is rated functionally obsolete by the National Bridge Inventory. Jenny Bass crosses the bridge on her way to and from work.

JENNY BASS: When I'm heading to work in the morning, I'm going south, and coming home, I'm going north, so the traffic is usually in the opposite direction.

WEINGARTNER: What does it look like in the opposite direction?

BASS: Stalled. Stalled out.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WEINGARTNER: Bass isn't exaggerating, says Mark Policinski, the executive director of the Ohio Kentucky Indiana Regional Council of Governments. He says the bridge isn't structurally obsolete, it just doesn't function. Traffic regularly backs up an average of three miles per day on each side of the river. The double-decker bridge carries two interstates, including I-75, which stretches from Michigan to Florida. Policinski says replacing the bridge isn't just a local problem.

MARK POLICINSKI: Over 2,000 miles of that trade corridor crosses this little rusted ribbon of bridge across the Ohio River. And unless this bridge is augmented in some way, not only is it going to cause congestion and more air pollution, but it's going to have a dramatic impact on the ability of this country to move goods north to south, particularly east of the Mississippi.

WEINGARTNER: In fact, Policinski says, three percent of the nation's gross domestic product crosses the Brent Spence each year. The route is only expected to get busier as the expanded Panama Canal pumps even more freight along the corridor.

POLICINSKI: It is a bridge that is a bridge to everywhere.

WEINGARTNER: In the 1980s, safety shoulders were removed to increase capacity. Mere inches separate the outside lanes from the edge of the bridge. Even a small accident can snarl traffic for hours. Commuter Alice Pope says crossing the Brent Spence makes her anxious.

ALICE POPE: If I broke down, there's nowhere to go. If you're in the middle lane, what happens? And I sort of have this weird fear that a truck's going to smash into my Mini, and I'm going to go into the Ohio.

WEINGARTNER: Her concerns aren't unfounded. Just a few months ago, a man died after being knocked over the side of the bridge. He'd run out of gas and was standing on the bridge when a crash pushed him over the rail. Stefan Spinosa is the Ohio Department of Transportation's Brent Spence project manager. He says reconfiguring the bridge corridor carries an estimated price tag of nearly $2.4 billion. There's bipartisan support for expanding the bridge, but no one knows where the money will come from.

STEFAN SPINOSA: Whether it's federal government, whether it's the state motor fuel taxes, that's still up in the air. The president's job bill could have an impact, I don't know.

WEINGARTNER: Even if Congress comes up with most of the money, states on either side of the bridge must find the rest. Officials in Kentucky and Ohio say it won't be easy to make that happen. For NPR News, I'm Tana Weingartner in Cincinnati. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.