Brent Spence Bridge Reopens Six Weeks After Fiery Crash
A major bridge over the Ohio River in the Cincinnati area reopened on time and under budget after six weeks of emergency repairs.
The Brent Spence Bridge, which carries interstates 71 and 75 over the river between Cincinnati and Covington, Ky., closed November 11 after two commercial vehicles collided and caught fire, melting steel beams and wiring and blackening concrete. The river closed to navigation for a mile in each direction from the bridge for parts of two days before it was assessed safe for river traffic to pass beneath it (WJ, November 30, 2020).Both the upper and lower decks of the bridge reopened to traffic December 22 along with all access ramps.
“We are pleased to reopen the Brent Spence Bridge ahead of schedule and return one of the nation’s busiest and most important economic travel corridors to public use,” Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said. “I commend the dedicated employees of the Transportation Cabinet for working with deliberate speed and adhering to strict safety guidelines in a time of unprecedented uncertainty in our great state.”
Kentucky Secretary of Transportation Jim Gray talked about the determination crews brought to the repair project.
“We conquered a combination of factors that challenged our ability to complete this project on time, including a global health pandemic and winter weather, and still delivered on our promise to return a safe and sound bridge to the traveling public before the holidays,” he said. “Along with repairing the bridge, we also focused our attention on traffic management to maintain reliable connections for travelers. Ensuring safe roadways is a partnership between KYTC and the public, and I appreciate everyone’s commitment and contribution to keeping our roads safe.”
A team of more than 20 national and local bridge inspectors surveyed the entire, two-deck span and conducted tests to ensure the bridge’s structural integrity. Less than a week after the closure, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet awarded a $3.1 million contract to prime contractor, Kokosing Construction Company of Westerville, Ohio, with a target reopening date of December 23.
Repairs to the bridge included: replacing 16 steel beams that were damaged by the fire; pouring new upper deck driving surface and concrete barrier wall; pouring a new layer of concrete on lower deck and a new concrete barrier wall; removing and installing the drainage system; installing new overhead lights; and restriping new concrete on upper and lower decks.
KYTC crews also completed a number of maintenance projects on and around the bridge while traffic was restricted to minimize future traffic interruptions and maximize efficiency. These included significant drainage repairs on the northbound side of I-71/75, just south of the bridge; cleaning overhead signs on the lower deck; and repaving and restriping the northbound approach lanes.
While the bridge is structurally sound and part of the region’s long-term infrastructure plan, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet said a new companion bridge is needed to support additional capacity. The Brent Spence Bridge was built in 1963 and designed to carry 80,000 to 100,000 vehicles per day, and it now carries approximately 160,000 vehicles daily across the Ohio River. The bridge was listed as functionally obsolete by the National Bridge Inventory in 1998, in large part because of limited visibility and safety concerns.
The initial closure led Mark Policinski, CEO of the Ohio Kentucky Indiana Regional Council of Governments, to comment, “If you can imagine the worst thing happening to our transportation system in this region, it just happened.”
He called the bridge the linchpin to the I-75 trade corridor, which runs from Michigan to Miami, and noted the effect on nearby private businesses, including shippers and port terminals, adding that more than $1 billion in freight goes across the bridge daily, adding up to more than $400 billion a year.
Amazon Prime is building its international headquarters at the region’s airport, which is on the south side of the river in northern Kentucky. The entire region is fast becoming the e-commerce hub for the United States, Policinski said. “So the amount of movement of goods coming in and out of this region has not only been dramatically increasing but will continue to do so for the foreseeable future,” he said.
The bridge closure also brought about a sudden increase in both publicity and traffic for the 203-year-old Anderson Ferry, which carries vehicles across the river and had been suffering from decreased usage over the previous few months because of the coronavirus pandemic (WJ, December 14, 2020). Owner-operator Paul Anderson said at the time he hoped some of the customers continued taking the ferry from time to time and might even bring their children or grandchildren for a ferry boat ride. Ridership has once again declined since the bridge reopened, but some commuters continue to use the ferry, he said more recently.
Meanwhile, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet and the Ohio Department of Transportation are discussing a plan that seeks to eventually relieve congestion over the river by building a companion bridge to the west of the existing Brent Spence Bridge to increase capacity for vehicles crossing the river. A project overview is available at brentspencebridgecorridor.com.
Gray also announced plans for the Cabinet to install new hazardous material signage in northern Kentucky to increase awareness of the long-standing hazardous material restriction north of I-275 between I-71/75 and the Ohio state line.
“We listened and then we held conversations at the local, state and federal levels regarding the hazmat restrictions in the area. We share the desire to install signage to reinforce the restrictions, which drivers who plan their routes should know,” Gray said. “It’s worthwhile to remember that the amount of potassium hydroxide transported by one of the vehicles in the crash was well below the federal threshold of what is considered hazardous material, so it was allowed to cross the bridge. While it’s every driver’s responsibility to know and obey the rules of the road, we’ll do everything we can to provide information.”
The U.S. Department of Transportation authorized up to $12 million in emergency relief reimbursement funding for the repair project, but Gray said the final expenses likely will be as little as half that amount.