Pandemic dims prospects for Brent Spence Bridge upgrade

The Brent Spence Bridge. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

WASHINGTON — The long-stalled effort to replace Brent Spence Bridge, a crucial Ohio River span that carries Interstates 71 and 75 between Cincinnati and its northern Kentucky suburbs, is likely to be further delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

For years, the obstacles preventing a new bridge from being built have been political and financial. The states have agreed to a plan that would involve building a new bridge next to the Brent Spence, and then rehabilitating the existing bridge to increase capacity. That could cost $2.5 billion or more. 

But northern Kentucky lawmakers, in particular, have chafed at the idea of using tolls to pay for construction of a new crossing, and the legislature even passed a law in 2016 prohibiting their use. Taking that option off the table — the same option that helped the Louisville area build two new bridges between Kentucky and Indiana — has left local leaders with few alternatives.

As recently as February, Kentucky’s new governor, Democrat Andy Beshear, said he had been talking with Ohio elected officials about replacing the bridge. He hoped for the federal government to take on a “larger part” of paying for improvements. “The federal government built a huge system of interstates and bridges on those interstates, yet has abandoned even the repairs and resurfacing of that,” he said then.

The COVID-19 outbreak has limited both the time that officials can spend on solving the funding problem and the amount of transportation money states and the federal government will have available. 

A Cincinnati TV station reported last month that negotiations between Kentucky and Ohio officials about the megaproject were “temporarily on hold” because of the health crisis.

But Ohio Department of Transportation spokesman Matt Bruning said talks continue, even if informally. “Have there been phone calls, emails or video calls between someone at [Ohio and Kentucky] over the past couple of months? I’m sure there probably have been. Have there been formal meetings? Not that I’m aware of,” he said. “We haven’t forgotten that the need remains.”

Toll on state budgets

The coronavirus and gubernatorial stay-at-home orders have also had a devastating impact on state transportation budgets, including those of Ohio and Kentucky. 

Because people aren’t traveling much, they’re also not buying gasoline. Both state and federal governments rely heavily on gas taxes to fund their transportation spending. National groups say fuel tax revenues have been down 30 to 40%. 

“Here’s what we know: There will be a decrease in motor fuel tax revenue,” Bruning acknowledged. The agency doesn’t know the exact size of that drop, though, because it takes two to three months for gas tax revenue to get from the customer to ODOT. 

But Bruning said the agency is preparing for revenue decreases. “We have been looking at all of our projects to determine what our critical needs are and what can be safely delayed, if needed,” he said. Already, the state has delayed work on the I-70/71 project in downtown Columbus and the I-74 project in Cincinnati back to the fall, he said. Those projects are expected to cost about $212 million.

Initial figures from Kentucky also indicate trouble for transportation budgets. 

Money going into the state’s road fund dropped by $43.9 million, or 30%, during the month of April. That falloff included a 60% drop in taxes on the sales of vehicles, because auto dealerships faced severe limits on their activities. Another factor was a 12% drop in fuel tax revenues. But gas tax funding is expected to drop further, because the April numbers reflect sales made in March. Beshear made his stay-at-home order effective March 18.

“Because of the revenue outlook, the Kentucky legislature passed just a one-year transportation budget before adjourning on April 15. It normally would have passed a two-year budget,” said Chuck Wolfe of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet. 

That includes $30 million for painting and other rehabilitation work on the Brent Spence Bridge, which is owned by Kentucky, he said. Meanwhile, the Ohio Department of Transportation is still preparing for construction to start when a deal is struck. The agency has acquired 59 of the 79 parcels needed for the project on its side of the river. (Ohio passed a two-year budget last year, which included a 10-cent gas tax hike for road funding that Gov. Mike DeWine had pushed for.)

Presidential promises

The continued impasse over funding on the Brent Spence Bridge comes at a potentially pivotal time for transportation spending at the national level. 

Cincinnati’s aging bridge has been a symbol for years for the need to upgrade the country’s infrastructure and its seeming ability to do so. 

President Donald J. Trump is seen giving remarks Sept. 22, 2019, at the Pratt Industries plant opening in Wapakoneta, Ohio. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

As a candidate, President Donald Trump promised to replace the structure, which carries twice its intended load of vehicles every day. When he was president, Barack Obama came to the foot of the bridge to promise the same thing. But neither president was ever able to secure funding for a new broad-based infrastructure initiative. Obama finally succeeded in getting a five-year deal in 2015 to keep highway funds flowing to the states, but that measure largely just kept existing programs intact.

In late March, Trump suggested that a $2 trillion infrastructure building effort could help revive the country’s economy. But congressional Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, balked at the idea. 

Even without a broader infrastructure effort, though, Congress will have to deal with road funding soon. 

Jim Tymon, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, called on Congress to send $50 billion to states to maintain their normal operations during the pandemic. “This isn’t about increasing [transportation system] investment — it’s about just maintaining the baseline,” Tymon said. “Without that $50 billion, projects will come off the books.”

On top of that, the 2015 surface transportation funding law that Obama signed will expire at the end of this September. The existing law depends on accounting gimmicks to pay for transportation projects, so Congress will have to find another source of funding just to keep existing programs running.

Mark Policinski, the CEO of the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Council of Governments, which coordinates major transportation decisions in the Cincinnati area, said Ohio and Kentucky officials have to come to an agreement before they can expect any help from the federal government. 

“Why would the federal government tie up hundreds of millions of dollars, when [the states] don’t have a project or a plan that is ready to go?” he asked. 

But Policinski said replacing the Brent Spence Bridge is an important part of helping the economy grow in the Cincinnati metro area. Amazon plans to spend $1.5 billion to create a hub at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport that will help lower delivery times for its Prime services from two days to one day. Those operations will only put more stress on highways like Interstate 75, which runs from Michigan to Florida, Policinski said, unless more capacity is added to cross the Ohio River. The Brent Spence Bridge currently handles 33,000 trucks a day, compared with the 3,000 it was originally designed for, he said.

“We don’t know how this is all going to play out, but we do know the country is going to survive and it is going to come back. In my mind that is a certainty,” he said. “The other certainty is that Brent Spence Bridge is going to have to be replaced.”