Kentucky, Ohio Announce Partnership To Seek Federal Funds For New Cincinnati Area Ohio River Bridge

The governors of Ohio and Kentucky are jointly pursuing up to $2 billion in federal funding to build a new bridge over the Ohio River between Cincinnati, Ohio, and Covington, Ky.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear held a joint news conference February 28 announcing they were signing a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to work together on the project,  which seeks funding to build a new companion bridge to the west of the Brent Spence Bridge. 

“I think we all understand the national significance of this bridge,” DeWine said. “The steps that we are taking today, the documents that we will be signing, we believe will position us in a perfect position to get the money that we need and to start construction on this bridge.”

The funding sought is part of the bipartisan federal infrastructure bill, which includes at least $39 billion for bridge projects. The memorandum also directs transportation officials in both states to begin preparations for construction. A more detailed interstate agreement will be signed later this year.

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 “This memorandum spells out our obligations and positions us to quickly apply for these federal dollars, which will allow us not only to build this new bridge, but to do it without tolls,” Beshear said. 

DeWine noted that an alternative to the Brent Spence Bridge has been needed for a long time because of traffic congestion on the bridge, which he called a bottleneck. He called the MOU “a significant step.”

“For decades, the backups on the Brent Spence Bridge have frustrated drivers, hindered economic development and slowed supply chain deliveries,” he said. “Today, a solution is in reach, and we are committed to aggressively working together to secure this funding to help us fix this transportation nightmare once and for all. Not only will this project improve quality of life for drivers in Ohio and Kentucky, but keeping this major transportation network open and moving will also have a significant positive impact on our national economy and national security.”

The Brent Spence Bridge was built in the 1960s to carry about 80,000 vehicles a day, but the daily Interstate 75 and Interstate 71 traffic load had reached 163,000 vehicles a day at the time of a 2019 study by the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet. Because I-75 is a key freight corridor stretching from Canada to Florida, the slowdowns also impact commerce throughout the eastern United States, the Kentucky governor’s office said in a statement about the announcement.

National attention was drawn to the bridge November 11, 2020, when two tractor-trailer rigs collided about mid-way on the lowest of the bridge’s two decks, causing a fire that melted steel beams and wiring and closed both the bridge and the Ohio River. The river was closed for a mile in each direction for parts of two days before engineers made the assessment it was safe for traffic to pass. The bridge was closed to motorists for six weeks while emergency repairs were completed. 

The bridge was a source of attention before then, however. In 2011, former President Barack Obama delivered a speech underneath the bridge, and former President Donald Trump also mentioned it in a 2017 speech. Most recently the bipartisan infrastructure bill referred to the Brent Spence Bridge as a “freight chokepoint” and as “a major infrastructure problem that the nation must solve.”

Beshear said he would like to break ground for the project as soon as 2023. It is expected to take about five years to build the bridge, said  Jack Marchbanks, director of the Ohio Department of Transportation.

Both Kentucky and Ohio transportation officials stressed that the Brent Spence Bridge is structurally sound and will remain in service even after the additional bridge is built. The second bridge would add traffic capacity by separating local and through traffic to ease the ongoing traffic backups and improve motorists’ safety.

“The Brent Spence Bridge is the critical link in this important corridor,” Kentucky Transportation Cabinet Secretary Jim Gray said. “New funding will support the construction of a new bridge—not a replacement—as well as updates to the existing bridge and the interstate network throughout the corridor. The Brent Spence Bridge is safe and structurally sound and will serve a critical transportation need for decades to come.”

Marchbanks said the signing of the MOU is a critical step that will help be competitive in the federal grant process.

Besides the bulk of funding to construct the additional bridge, the requested funding would cover costs to make improvements to the existing bridge and the surrounding 8 miles of interstate corridor, transportation officials said. Each state would pay for the approach work on their respective end of the bridge. The states will apply for the federal grant funding together once application guidance is released by the U.S. Department of Transportation. If funding is granted, both states have agreed to contribute any required matching funds.