Brent Spence Bridge: Could fiery crash end fight to finance new bridge to Cincinnati?

Morgan Watkins
Louisville Courier Journal

The Brent Spence Bridge has been overloaded with traffic for decades, but a $2.6 billion plan to build a new bridge to alleviate some of that pressure has been stuck in limbo for years.

The unsolved problem: Settling on a way to finance it that's acceptable to public officials on both sides of the Ohio River.

A blazing accident on the bridge closed the often-clogged thruway on Nov. 11 and will keep it shuttered for several weeks, causing a logistics nightmare for countless drivers. It also underscored the need for a new path between Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati.

"We have to step up and find a solution," CEO Mark Policinski of the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments, or OKI, said.

However, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has indicated the solution won't come from the federal government.

"There’s never been an earmark in the history of America big enough to build that bridge," the longtime senator said during an October visit to Northern Kentucky. "The people who represent Northern Kentucky and all of Kentucky in Frankfort have to decide how they want to pay for it."

A view of the closed Brent Spence Bridge on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020. A truck carrying potassium hydroxide crashed into a jackknifed truck, sparking an intense fire.

Covington Mayor Joe Meyer, who has many constituents who commute to work in Cincinnati using the Brent Spence Bridge, thinks the federal government should pay up.

The bridge is a major commercial trucking route and is nationally significant, Meyer said. He suggested the U.S. government should cover the bulk of the cost for new infrastructure that could make this chokepoint less of a problem.

'A darn mess’: Why the Brent Spence Bridge closure is more than a Cincinnati problem

The mayor blamed a lack of political will and "absolutely an unforgivable lack of leadership by the senior senator from Kentucky" for the failure to address this issue with federal resources.

"This is a guy who just gave away trillions of dollars in tax breaks during the last four years," Meyer also said of McConnell. "This little project is a rounding error in the federal budget, and the man has ... every ounce of ability to get this funded if he wanted to."

U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who's married to McConnell, has made $12 million in emergency relief funds available to help repair the bridge after this month's accident. A truck carting potassium hydroxide hit a jackknifed semi, igniting a fire on the bridge at 2:45 a.m. Nov. 11.

But Policinski, of OKI, said it's unrealistic to expect the federal government to foot the entire bill for building a new bridge alongside the Brent Spence.

"I don't know of any federal project — unless there’s a disaster — where the federal government says, 'We're going to pay for a multibillion-dollar (infrastructure) project out of our own pockets, and the locals are off the hook,'" he told The Courier Journal.

"The first rule of getting money from the federal government is you have to have your house in order, and right now our region does not have a finance plan to take to the feds," he added.

Covington Police and Covington Fire work an accident and fire scene on the Brent Spence Bridge on Nov. 11, 2020, in Covington, Ky. The Brent Spence Bridge is closed and will be shut down both ways indefinitely. According to the EMA, a box truck with potassium hydroxide caught fire this morning. Flames shot up to the upper deck.

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie, whose district covers Northern Kentucky, both have called for more federal money to be freed up for infrastructure projects in the U.S. by, among other things, spending less on military operations in places like Afghanistan.

In a statement, Massie told The Courier Journal he believes the U.S. government has an important role in helping finance interstate projects like the Brent Spence Bridge. 

"Although earmarks for specific highway projects were banned before I was elected to Congress, I’ve been an advocate for increasing revenue available to the states, from the Highway Trust Fund, by reallocating money currently spent on foreign aid and foreign wars," Massie said.

Paul's spokeswoman, Kelsey Cooper, similarly said: "Senator Paul has spent his entire career in the Senate proposing solutions and introducing legislation to prioritize spending our tax dollars here at home on domestic priorities instead of overseas in order to fund critical infrastructure projects across Kentucky, like the Brent Spence Bridge.

"His proposals have included plans to designate unspent foreign aid for transportation projects, to incentivize companies to bring offshore profits home to invest in our bridges and roads, and most recently a bill that would have provided over $12 billion for infrastructure projects in 2020," Cooper continued. "Additionally, he continues to call for bringing our troops home from Afghanistan, which could free up $50 billion per year for things like infrastructure."

In a recent statement, McConnell said he, too, has worked to secure dollars for infrastructure in his home state, including Northern Kentucky. 

"I’ve delivered nearly $300 million for Kentucky infrastructure projects as Senate Majority Leader," he said. "In this region, I’ve helped secure $67 million for Boone County to improve I-71/I-75 and $10 million for Kenton County road safety upgrades."

As for the Brent Spence issue, McConnell said in late October: "States decide how to prioritize the federal funds that come down. … These types of state projects are funded out of the gas tax, which comes down to the states.

"If there were a solution in Washington, believe me, when John Boehner was (House) speaker and I was Republican leader, we would have been able to produce that," he said. (Boehner, an Ohio Republican, led the U.S. House of Representatives from 2011 through October 2015.)

The White House has gotten involved in the yearslong debate over how to deal with the Brent Spence Bridge and its congestion problems, too.

Former President Barack Obama pitched a plan in 2011 that would have devoted about $50 billion to American infrastructure initiatives and even paid a visit to the Brent Spence Bridge, which was a prime example of the kind of project that would benefit from fresh funds.

But his proposal didn't make it through Congress, and President Donald Trump's promise in 2016 to drum up money to help with the Brent Spence situation likewise went nowhere.

The battle over tolls

The Brent Spence Bridge gets about double the traffic it was designed to deal with when it opened in 1963, and that overload prompted the Federal Highway Administration to deem it functionally obsolete in the '90s.

"It’s important for people to understand that the term ‘functionally obsolete’ means it carries more vehicles per day than it was originally designed to accommodate, and does not speak to the bridge’s structural integrity," Massie said. "In fact, every plan for addressing ‘functional obsolescence’ involves building a second bridge while maintaining the original bridge."

State officials in Ohio and Kentucky have developed and vetted a roughly $2.6 billion plan to refurbish the Brent Spence Bridge, build a new bridge alongside it and do associated roadwork, Policinski of OKI said.

The project no one can get done: A new bridge between Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.

Tolls are a commonly suggested way to help pay for that plan but historically have been a hard sell in Northern Kentucky.

Meyer, the mayor, said the first organized opposition to using tolls for bridges that cross the Ohio River between Covington and Cincinnati dates to 1867. And it's still a controversial proposition today.

A view of the closed Brent Spence Bridge on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020. A truck carrying potassium hydroxide crashed into a jackknifed truck, sparking an intense fire.

Meyer said tolls would be "hugely disadvantageous to Northern Kentuckians." 

He compared their scenario to the tolled bridges between Louisville and Southern Indiana, where more people commute from the Hoosier State to Kentucky's largest city to work than vice versa.

"We here in Northern Kentucky are not Louisville. We are Southern Indiana," he explained.

Meyer also worries local companies that do a lot of business across the river in Ohio might move there eventually to save money if tolls are put in place. "The big neighbor to the north is the one that’s getting the bulk of the economic benefit," he said.

A Kentucky law is another barrier to financing a new bridge next to the Brent Spence with tolls.

In 2016, state lawmakers passed legislation that essentially forbade tolls from being instituted on bridges between Kentucky and Ohio. Former Gov. Matt Bevin signed it into law.

Ohio officials are generally fine with using tolls to pay for a companion bridge to the Brent Spence, Policinski said. However, he suggested conversations about how to pay for this project shouldn't start with the contentious idea of tolling, although that option shouldn't be discounted.

“We just need for reasoned men and women on both sides of the river to come together and say, 'We have to find a solution,'" he said. 

Will this crash lead to change?

This month's accident already has built momentum for people to come together to figure out how to finally finance a new bridge, Policinski said.

"There is a great deal more interest in solving this problem than what there was eight days ago," he said Wednesday, a week after the crash.

He stressed that this accident could have injured or killed a lot of people if it had happened in the middle of the afternoon instead of the middle of the night.

"And when you wake up one morning … and you see a 1,500-degree fireball sitting on the Brent Spence Bridge (on TV), you might think to yourself, 'We have to do something,'" he said as he discussed how this crash could spur people to action.

Beshear on the Brent Spence Bridge: 'The bridge, at best, will be closed several days'

Even if tolls end up remaining a nonstarter in Northern Kentucky, he said it's vital to find a way to make this project happen.

"People have been at the table for a long time, but the point is that they never get to a solution. Well, now we’ve seen the fireball," he said. "I mean, how many bullets can we dodge?"

Reach reporter Morgan Watkins: 502-582-4502; mwatkins@courierjournal.com; Twitter: @morganwatkins26.