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Presidents have been promising to fix this bridge for years. Now it's Biden's turn.

The Brent Spence Bridge's much-needed makeover has bedeviled politicians from John Boehner and Mitch McConnell to Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
Image: Brent Spence Bridge
The Brent Spence Bridge spans the Ohio River on the Ohio-Kentucky border in Cincinnati, on April 2, 2021.Jeff Dean / AFP - Getty Images

President Joe Biden's $2 trillion infrastructure proposal is the latest hope for a long-neglected bridge that politicians and business leaders have wanted to upgrade for decades.

Each day, some 160,000 cars and trucks cross the Brent Spence Bridge, which carries commuters and freight over the Ohio River between Cincinnati and Covington, Kentucky.

That’s double the load the bridge — part of a busy North-South commerce corridor that ties into interstates 71 and 75 — was built for in the 1960s. Concrete has been known to rain down from it. Traffic jams are common. Wrecks, too. After two semis collided in November, causing a damaging fire, the bridge closed for six weeks. Public officials emphasize it is structurally sound, but in 1998, the federal government deemed it “functionally obsolete.”

In the 23 years since, the Brent Spence has become something of a political football.

It can be a convenient prop, like it was in 2011 for then-President Barack Obama. With the bridge behind him, Obama called on the Republican leaders in the House and Senate, Ohio’s John Boehner and Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, to pass a plan that might have helped fund a new bridge.

It can also be a battleground-state rallying cry, as it was in 2016 for Donald Trump. In southwest Ohio days before the election, the then-Republican presidential candidate suggested canceling “billions of dollars in global warming payments to the United Nations” to pay for the upgrade.

Obama was unable to sell Congress. Trump’s one term came and went with plenty of “infrastructure week” jokes but no results. Now it’s Biden’s turn, and the American Jobs Plan he unveiled last month has given Brent Spence boosters fresh optimism.

The president’s proposal would fix the 10 “most economically significant bridges.” Brent Spence advocates cite a 2009 study that found hundreds of billions of dollars of freight crossed each year. And the area around the bridge ranks second in the country for truck congestion and bottlenecks, according to a recent report from the American Transportation Research Institute.

“I am pushing to get the Brent Spence Bridge included in that infrastructure plan,” Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, said during a news conference this week. “I was told that the 10 [projects] have not been selected, but certainly it would be hard to argue the Brent Spence Bridge isn’t one of the top economically significant bridges in the country.”

One plan, with costs estimated at $2.6 billion, would involve building a new bridge alongside the existing span and making other road improvements on both sides of the Kentucky-Ohio border. There have been disagreements over how many lanes the bridge should be, how state and local governments could raise funds to build and maintain it and how disruptive the project might be to neighborhoods, particularly in Covington. Tolls, for example, have been a nonstarter on the Kentucky side, where in 2016 then-Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican, signed a bill that outlawed them on bridges connecting to Ohio.

But champions of the project believe congressional funding would motivate local stakeholders to iron out their differences. In February, weeks before Biden introduced his plan, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a business lobbying group, featured the Brent Spence in a digital advertising campaign urging lawmakers in Washington to pass an infrastructure bill by the July 4 holiday.

“We had some false starts during the Trump administration on infrastructure at the federal level,” Ed Mortimer, the Chamber’s vice president for transportation and infrastructure, said this week. “I feel like Congress is trying to figure out ways to come to some bipartisan consensus. Infrastructure is tailor-made for that. You know, there's an old saying that there is no Republican road or Democrat bridge — they're all American. So this is the federal government's opportunity to show they can actually function and do things on behalf of the American people.”

McConnell — whose wife, Elaine Chao, served as Trump’s transportation secretary — remains the top Republican in the 50-50 Senate, presiding over a minority thanks to the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris. A McConnell spokesperson referred to a statement the GOP leader made to local media last week. (Boehner, long gone from the House, has a dishy “Washington Memoir” set to publish next week and did not respond to requests for comment.)

"I can't imagine that somewhere in a multitrillion-dollar bill there wouldn't be money for the Brent Spence Bridge," McConnell said in Erlanger, Kentucky.

"Whether that's part of an overall package I can support, I can tell you if it's going to have massive tax increases and trillions more added to the national debt, not likely," McConnell added.

Other Republicans are approaching the infrastructure debate similarly, preaching fiscal discipline and raising the likelihood that Biden will have to settle for less.

Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley, a Democrat, said he is optimistic about a compromise that will keep the Brent Spence hope alive.

“It connects Michigan and Florida,” Cranley, who is exploring a run for governor of Ohio in 2022, said of the bridge. “It's one of the most-traveled highways in the country. And if we're gonna be competitive with China and other countries, we've got to have vibrant, working infrastructure.”

Even then, the goal posts for a project that’s nearly a quarter-century overdue could shift.

Cranley’s counterpart across the river, Mayor Joe Meyer of Covington, stressed that federal money is only part of the equation. He sees the new bridge, with a proposed expansion from eight to 16 lanes, as an “existential threat” that will carve up too much land and displace too many residents. He’s also skeptical the project can be pulled off without state-collected tolls as part of the overall funding package and sees such a move, if the Kentucky Legislature relents, prompting more motorists to find alternate routes and overburden other roads and infrastructure.

“It would be delightful to have improvements made to that bridge — without tolls,” said Meyer, a Democrat. “That would be thrilling. However, the current design of the bridge needs to be adjusted to significantly reduce the damage that it does to the city of Covington. And if we can get the money and the redesign of the bridge, then that would be success.”

Meyer, though, acknowledged he has little say in what the federal government and the states decide.

“We are just little folks,” he said, “who are raising our hand, trying to get noticed.”