President Barack Obama is using a crumbling Kentucky bridge over the Ohio River as a prime example of the need to rebuild the nation's aging infrastructure.
"There are private construction companies all across America just waiting to get to work," Obama told Congress on Sept. 8, unveiling his newest job-creation plan. "There's a bridge that needs repair between Ohio and Kentucky that's on one of the busiest trucking routes in North America."
But it was a second Kentucky bridge over the Ohio River that officials ordered closed the next day after engineers found cracks in its steel beams. That closure is forcing tens of thousands of vehicles through jammed city streets and onto a third Kentucky bridge over the Ohio River, this one rated by inspectors as even less sufficient than the others to remain in service.
Those three interstate highway bridges — the first in Cincinnati, the next two in Louisville, all built in the early 1960s — are tentatively scheduled to be supplemented with three new bridges at a combined cost of up to $6.5 billion. That money will be hard to find while the federal government cuts spending and states confront their own budget shortfalls.
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However, experts say inaction no longer is viable. Every day, several hundred thousand motorists and millions of dollars in commerce rely on these links between Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio, including trucks that fill Central Kentucky groceries with food and factories with raw parts.
An aging bridge seems like an abstract problem until it closes. Or — far worse — it collapses, killing those unfortunate enough to be on it at the time.
"When you have major projects like these bridges, they are extremely costly. We're not sure where the money is going to come from. And so it's very tempting to put off making the sort of investments that we need to make. That's what we've been doing," said Merl Hackbart, a former state budget director who teaches public finance at the University of Kentucky.
One in four of the nation's 599,766 bridges are rated "structurally deficient" (in need of reconstruction) or "functionally obsolete" (too small for modern traffic loads), according to a 2008 report by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. For Kentucky's 13,637 bridges, it's nearly one in three.
It would cost $140 billion to immediately repair or replace every bridge in the country that needs it, which is about 14 times what the federal, state and local governments actually spent on bridge improvements in 2006, the state highway officials wrote in their report.
"The nation has a generation of Baby Boomer bridges, constructed in the 1950s and 1960s, that need major repair or replacement. Usually built to last 50 years, the average bridge in this country today is 43 years old," the officials wrote three years ago.
'Got my hammer'
Obama plans Thursday to tout the job-creating potential of public construction projects. The president will speak at the Brent Spence Bridge, which handles Interstates 71 and 75 traffic between Covington and Cincinnati. The 48-year-old span carries twice its intended traffic load, does not have emergency breakdown lanes (leading to a fatality on the bridge in June) and occasionally sheds chunks of concrete onto vehicles crossing its lower deck.
From a political angle, highlighting the troubled bridge lets the Democratic president tweak the lawmakers whose home states it connects — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. The Republican leaders oppose Obama's overall jobs plan.
A new bridge is long overdue, said Covington Mayor Denny Bowman.
"We have people living here who get up two hours earlier for work just so they can get across the river on time," Bowman said. "By 7 a.m. most weekdays, traffic starts to back up from our two exits all the way to Buttermilk Pike in Fort Mitchell, and that's a good number of miles down the highway."
There are plans to supplement the Brent Spence Bridge with a new span that would relieve its traffic burden, at an estimated cost of $2.4 billion. Eight miles of highway leading to the river would be improved. Construction could begin in 2016 and end in 2022 if money is secured, local officials say.
"I've got my hammer and I'm ready to go out and drive rivets today. But it's hard to prognosticate on this. It all comes down to funding," said Brian Cunningham, spokesman for the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional State Governments, based in Cincinnati.
Some Republican lawmakers were pushing the Brent Spence Bridge as a public jobs project before Obama did. In April, U.S. Rep. Geoff Davis, R-Hebron, whose district includes the bridge, urged his colleagues to fund the replacement. (Last week, Davis publicly criticized much of the proposed spending in Obama's jobs plan, but he applauded the president's offered assistance for the bridge.)
"The Brent Spence Bridge is critical infrastructure for the American economy," Davis told a House transportation panel in April. "Funding such projects will also hasten economic recovery and put Americans back to work."
Down river, engineers are inspecting the Sherman Minton Bridge in Louisville to determine how badly it's cracked and under what conditions it might reopen. Motorists can count on slow detours around the closed bridge probably for a few weeks at least, said Chuck Wolfe, spokesman for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet.
Kentucky owns the bridge, with Indiana taking the lead on maintenance duties.
"Our goal is to get it fixed and reopened safely as soon as we can do that," Wolfe said. "It's gonna be this way for a while. We hope it's not too long, but it's not gonna be quick, either."
From Louisville, the Sherman Minton Bridge takes I-64 traffic to New Albany, Ind. Much of that traffic has shifted to the nearby John F. Kennedy Bridge, which carries I-65 traffic to Jeffersonville, Ind.
According to the National Bridge Inventory Database, inspectors have rated the Kennedy bridge as 56 percent sufficient to remain in service, compared with 60 percent for the Minton bridge and 74 percent for the Spence bridge. However, Kentucky officials say the Kennedy bridge is sound and can withstand the additional weight of detoured vehicles.
Like in Cincinnati, there are ambitious plans in Louisville: build two new Ohio River bridges, relieving the traffic on existing spans, and reconstruct the headache-inducing downtown interchange known locally as "Spaghetti Junction," where Interstates 64, 65 and 71 merge. Also like in Cincinnati, nobody knows where the money will come from — as much as $4.1 billion, although officials this year suggested $1.2 billion in possible savings by reducing the project's scope.
Typically, interstate highway bridge projects are funded 80 percent by the federal government and 20 percent by the host states. For bridges across a state line — that's what the Ohio River is — neighboring states split the 20 percent. But even divided shares of a billion-dollar project are more than Kentucky and its neighbors can afford, prompting debate over other funding methods, such as tolls.
The Louisville bridges project additionally has been tied up in court by litigation, including a lawsuit by an environmental group opposed to the span planned for eastern Jefferson County.
If all goes well and funds are available, construction could begin next year and end between 2018 and 2024, said Christi Lanier-Robinson, spokeswoman for the Louisville and Southern Indiana Bridges Authority.
'A wake-up call'
If it seems like America used to build more big things, and faster, that's because it did.
An era of massive national construction closed in the 1970s, following the completion of the interstate highway system, the state highway officials wrote in their 2008 report. Having inherited a first-rate transportation infrastructure, Americans failed to properly maintain it or expand it as traffic increased, the officials wrote.
For example: Kentucky's stretch of I-64 is carried on 191 bridges, including the now-closed Minton bridge, according to the federal bridge database. The oldest were erected in the 1950s. Fewer than one in five were built in the past two decades.
In modern times, costs have risen tremendously for the oil, steel and concrete needed to put bridges together. New laws require builders to devote more effort to awarding contracts fairly and to take into account environmental concerns and citizen complaints before unleashing the bulldozers.
Hackbart, the public finance professor, said Americans have become less willing to accept the cost and disruption of major construction in their back yards. Communities that successfully lobbied to get the first bridge across a river become satisfied, and they will lobby just as hard against future bridges, he said.
"We have to deal with the concerns that communities have about changes that result from projects in their area," Hackbart said. "They may not be aware of the fact that their existing bridge is inadequate, although the situation in Louisville right now certainly is a wake-up call."