Could truck crash resurrect Brent Spence Bridge expansion project?

Shutdown in accident aftermath could last weeks, cost millions in freight delays

A billion-dollar bridge project put on hold due to lack of funding could get renewed attention in the aftermath of a truck crash that threatens to keep a major U.S. freight corridor closed for weeks.

The accident occurred at approximately 2:45 a.m. EST on Wednesday on the Brent Spence Bridge, which carries Interstate 75 and Interstate 71 traffic over the Ohio River between Cincinnati and northern Kentucky. A northbound truck jackknifed on the bridge’s lower deck, according to the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet (KYTC), the agency responsible for maintaining the bridge. A second truck carrying potassium hydroxide crashed into the truck that had jackknifed, causing a diesel fuel fire.

“Inspectors will determine the extent of damage and any structural damage. Initially, officials know that there is visible damage to the bridge and its concrete decking,” KYTC posted in an update Thursday morning. “The bridge will remain closed until its safety can be guaranteed. At best, the bridge will be closed for several days, but travelers should be prepared for the possibility of weeks.” Traffic is being detoured to Interstates 275 and 471.

Because the Brent Spence Bridge is located along one of the busiest trucking routes in the U.S. — it connects 10 states from Michigan to Florida — shutting it down for a prolonged period could rack up millions in freight-delay costs.

According to a 2009 study from the Texas Transportation Institute, the bridge carries 3% of the nation’s GDP each year, equating to $417 billion. In addition, the I-75/I-71 interchange in Cincinnati ranked No. 8 this year on the American Transportation Research Institute’s Top 100 trucking bottleneck list.

To relieve the bottleneck — and potentially avoid prolonged shutdowns in the aftermath of an accident like the one that occurred this week — Kentucky and Ohio have had in the works for years a plan to build an additional parallel bridge, known as the Brent Spence Corridor project. To pay for the $2.6 billion project, the two states envision using traditional state and federal funds in combination with a low-interest federal loan as well as collecting a bridge toll, according to the project’s website.

“Depending on the exact project delivery method, private financing [through a public-private partnership arrangement] could also be used up front to fast-track the project,” according to the plan. “Fast-tracking can ultimately save millions of dollars because delay invites inflation and escalating construction costs. Final decisions regarding funding will be made by KYTC and [the Ohio Department of Transportation].”

According to the project website, “a range of tolls are being evaluated, including a frequent user discount and a premium for vehicles requiring video tolling.” Trucks’ tolls would be higher than those of  passenger vehicles because they produce more wear and tear on the roadway, it noted.

It remains to be seen whether the accident this week can resurrect a project that has been in financial limbo.

“I can’t say that it will make money for the project magically appear, but I think it does serve to underscore that it is a critical bottleneck in our national freight infrastructure, and it is definitely a weakness that we have on a major corridor stretching from northern Michigan down to Miami,” Chris Runyan, president of the Ohio Contractors Association, told FreightWaves.

“It does seem like we’ve spent many years and dollars squirming and twisting a way to find a way out of this investment. There have been so many different alternatives and studies, and I don’t think anyone has come to an acceptable conclusion as far as meeting our transportation needs other than replacing the bridge. But the fact of the matter is it’s still a huge price tag.”

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John Gallagher

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.