The Brent Spence Bridge, a double-decker cantilevered truss bridge that carries Interstates 75 and 71 across the Ohio River and serves as a vital transportation link between Cincinnati and the tri-county Northern Kentucky region will remain closed indefinitely after a fiery early morning crash on November 11 involving two tractor-trailers. Boat traffic was also temporarily suspended along that busy stretch of the Ohio River, as officials inspected the aging and overburdened structure, which first opened to traffic in November 1963 and was listed as “functionally obsolete” by the Federal Highway Administration in the early 1990s after the removal of its emergency lanes to make way for additional traffic lanes.
While the functionally obsolete designation doesn’t necessarily mean that the bridge has been at imminent risk of collapsing for the past 30 years, it does indicate that it accommodates dramatically more daily traffic than it was initially designed for. And, while a replacement bridge scheme has been in serious consideration for well over a decade, ongoing funding squabbles—namely the refusal by Kentucky lawmakers to enact tolls that would help pay for the estimated $2.5 billion project—have sidelined plans to mitigate what was already a mounting infrastructural nightmare well before the November 11 closure.
As noted by the Cincinnati Enquirer in its timeline of the years-long bridge replacement saga, in 2016 then-presidential candidate Donald Trump had pledged to replace the fraying transportation link between Cincinnati and its Kentucky suburbs, including the city of Covington, using federal funds earmarked for the United Nations. That never happened.
Much like the ongoing closure of the West Seattle Bridge, the shuttering of the Brent Spence Bridge, which has snarled traffic, harmed local businesses, and prompted at least one county to declare a state of emergency, further illustrating the “total chaos” that can ensue when America’s aging infrastructure is pushed to the brink.
Making an already hectic situation already worse in the greater Cincinnati area was the fact that the iconic John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge was shuttered indefinitely just hours after the Brent Spence Bridge closure due to “numerous and continued violations of the bridge’s weight limits” as motorists—including semi-truck drivers—sought alternate routes across the river, which placed significant stress on the historic span. The beloved Cincinnati/Kentucky landmark was the longest bridge of its kind when it opened on January 1, 1867, a feat that was only surpassed by the Brooklyn Bridge, also designed by Roebling, when it debuted in May 1883.
“Due to the inordinate amount of tractor-trailer operators who are refusing to follow the weight limit on the suspension bridge, the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge will also be closed in both directions until further notice,” said Covington Police Lt. Col. Brian Valenti in a statement shared by the Enquirer. “The weight limit on the bridge is only 11 tons. The weight of even an empty semi or a tractor alone far exceeds this limit. At this time there is no known damage to the suspension bridge. It is being closed as a precaution to not only ensure the safety of the bridge but also those who are attempting to use it.”
The John A. Roebling Bridge has since reopened to traffic while a strict ban on commercial traffic, including trucks and buses, remains in place.
Meanwhile, it’s unclear when the Brent Spence Bridge will fully reopen to traffic with officials noting that repairs, aided by a $12 million federal emergency grant, could last weeks or even months after engineers have fully inspected the bridge’s concrete decking, steel framework, and other elements that could have potentially been compromised by the crash. Various detours and new traffic patterns have been established to alleviate congestion while this process is underway. The Anderson Ferry, an over 200-year-old ferry service linking Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, has also expanded service as it sees ridership swell due to the bridge ongoing bridge nightmare. It too experienced a (thankfully brief) hiccup in service on Sunday when all trips across the Ohio River were halted due to high winds.