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The infrastructure disaster nobody is talking about

The infrastructure disaster nobody is talking about
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Perhaps we are still distracted by the election. Perhaps commuting patterns have changed so much that it is not as important. 

But unless you live in or around Cincinnati, you probably have not been following one of the biggest infrastructure disasters in recent years: the closure of the Brent Spence Bridge (BSB) in Cincinnati. While nobody was killed or even hurt, the incident displays the tragic state of America’s infrastructure and the inability for this country to do anything about it. 

The BSB carries two major interstate highways (I-71 and I-75) and more than 150,000 vehicles every day over the Ohio River between Northern Kentucky and downtown Cincinnati. On Nov. 11, two semi-trucks collided on the bridge, causing a massive overnight fire. Once the fire was extinguished, inspection crews determined that the crash might have caused structural damage to the steel girders and concrete decking. 

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The bridge was promptly shut to all vehicular traffic on it and barge traffic under it. It is expected to reopen for cars and trucks on Dec. 23 but only if crews are able to access the damaged section with their heavy equipment. Transportation departments in Kentucky and Ohio scrambled to set up detours to manage the changing traffic patterns.

The BSB is a classic example of an overused, under-maintained transportation asset whose upgrade has been deferred for decades. Built in 1963 to accommodate three lanes of traffic in each direction on its two decks, engineers in the 1980s decided to eliminate the shoulders and narrow the lanes to 11 feet so that four lanes of traffic can travel in each direction. Drivers experience a harrowing four lanes of heavy traffic at high speed followed by a messy interchange. Such a crash was inevitable (and probably avoidable) on the bridge that federal inspectors have deemed "functionally obsolete" since the 1990s. 

Rebuilding the BSB has been deferred in large part because of its $2.6 billion estimated cost. Including the connecting ramps, the per-mile cost of a new 1,700-foot bridge will be more expensive than tunneling a new subway under New York City. While regional leaders have pushed Washington for a replacement since at least 2008, funding has not arrived and local officials resisted other funding sources such as tolls.

The bridge also suffers from another root cause of so much infrastructure dysfunction: governance. The bridge is owned by Kentucky, so the responsibility for maintenance and rebuilding ultimately falls there, not on Ohio. But the transportation link is an important asset for both sides of the Ohio River as well as the nation, carrying cars and trucks bound for destinations far outside that immediate region. But like the Gateway rail project between New York and New Jersey, the high price tag, lack of regional cooperation and tepid federal interest prevents action. 

Assuming engineers can patch the BSB and reopen it for traffic later next month, discussions about how to build a replacement need to proceed with more urgency. However, planners and policymakers should also consider other options. Rerouting I-71 and I-75 around Cincinnati on existing roads instead of through it would alleviate some of the demand while causing a relatively minor inconvenience for longer distance drivers. Tolling, perhaps in the form of congestion pricing, could be a sustainable revenue source as well as an incentive for more efficient use. Changes in long term travel patterns from COVID-19, concerns for climate and considerations for racial equity should also weigh into the decision. 

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It is also time to reconsider how we fund and maintain America’s infrastructure broadly. As rumbles of an infrastructure package continue in Washington, placing more emphasis on maintenance and asset management is gaining traction from both progressives and conservatives. Designing for safety over capacity can help save lives and avert disasters. Reforming governance to improve regional coordination and better decisions is long overdue. 

All these components can be part of a smart infrastructure package designed to tackle the coming century’s challenges rather than fix last century’s mistakes. 

 Paul Lewis is vice president of Policy and Finance at Eno Center for Transportation. Follow the organization on Twitter @EnoTrans.