In the early morning hours of Nov. 11, a fiery crash between two semis, one of them carrying a highly flammable chemical, has led to a complete closure, possibly until late December, of the Brent Spence Bridge, the major artery between Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati.
To understand the potential impact and possible solutions, NKY thrives Managing Editor David Holthaus interviewed Mark Policinski, CEO of the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments. OKI is a regionwide collaboration of local governments, business organizations, and community groups focused on improving the local economy, with transportation as one of its top priorities.
NKY thrives: This is the longest total closure of the bridge that anyone can remember. What’s the impact going to be?
Policinski: This is a meltdown. It’s devastating. It’s absolutely devastating for commerce. A billion dollars worth of freight goes over that bridge every day.
NKY thrives: Can you estimate what the business impact will be?
Policinski: You have to remember a couple of statistics about how important it is to this region. Of the the 2 million people who live here, 60 percent live within five miles of the I-75 corridor. Of the 1 million jobs in this region, 70 percent of them are within five miles of the 75 corridor, and the Brent Spence Bridge is the linchpin of that corridor. You can see how devastating it is, especially to businesses that use it more than once a day.
We have to cross that bridge, with fear in our minds, twice a day. Think about a business that has a fleet of trucks that cross it five or 10 times a day. It adds to costs, and shakes up the price points of all the goods that go over it.
For companies that have to move goods on a regular basis, this is probably the worst news they can receive when it comes to transportation.
NKY thrives: The impact goes well beyond Northern Kentucky and Greater Cincinnati, doesn’t it?
Mark PolicinskiPolicinski: The bridge not only connects Northern Kentucky to Ohio, it connects Michigan to Miami. It’s located on one of the major trade corridors in the U.S., Interstate 75. When we say a billion dollars of freight goes across that bridge every day, a large portion of that is national commerce.
NKY thrives: What are people doing to compensate?
Policinski: If you have to deliver goods, you have to deliver goods. So they’re taking secondary routes. They’re taking different ways to get there, detours, which creates a lot of problems. I-471, since the pandemic, has been a free-flowing highway. Now, 471, for large parts of the day, has slowed down to a crawl.
NKY thrives: Is this affecting local neighborhoods too?
Policinski: People think if they can’t use the Brent Spence Bridge they’ll just get on a major highway and use another bridge. The problem with that is, a lot of commuters and trucks take shortcuts. That means they go through local neighborhoods. And that means local neighborhood streets, which might see five vehicles every half hour, are now seeing 100 vehicles every 25 minutes. It changes everything. The ripple impacts of this are obvious in commerce, but also in how it changes the quality of life.
NKY thrives: This is obviously a real safety issue too.
Policinski: Think about what would have happened if that fireball, burning at 1,500 degrees, would have ignited not at 3 AM, but at 3 PM. The bridge is not safe. Not that it’s going to fall down, but its engineering cannot handle the traffic today.
NKY thrives: I wonder if this could lead to a change in attitude among local politicians regarding tolls?
Policinski: People right away go to tolls. What they need to do is have reasoned men and women on both sides of the river say, ‘We’re going to solve this problem.’ And the only way that you can have a robust solution is if you have all the options on the table. You have to have tolls as part of the discussion, but it doesn’t mean we have to have tolls.
The most important thing is not to be focused on the question of tolls, but to be focused on the question of cooperation. Cooperation is only valuable if it leads to a solution. That’s what needs to take place instead of setting up obstacles and barriers, and pros and cons, and right and wrong before we even sit down at the table. That’s incredibly counterproductive and will guarantee that we fail in our mission to get a new bridge built.
NKY thrives: Are there any new models for financing?
Policinski: You have to look at what are we going to do at the local level in putting together a financing package. The local and regional entities have to agree to a financing plan to take to the feds to get them to buy in and give us money. The feds are not going to give any money to a region that doesn’t have its act together. You can’t just walk in to Washington and say, ‘We don’t really know what we’re doing here, we’re not really committed to this thing, but give us a billion dollars.’
It follows an old formula: Get your house in order, then go to Washington and make your case, and they will fund this bridge if we get our act together locally and come up with our portion. Washington will deliver money on this project.
NKY thrives: Why do you think that is so?
Policinksi: There isn’t a person in the transportation world in the U.S. who understands infrastructure who doesn’t know about the Brent Spence Bridge.
During the last transportation bill, when they were discussing on the floor of the Senate the dilapidated state of our infrastructure, they had an easel, and they had one picture up for the debate. It was a picture of the Brent Spence Bridge. It is the poster child for the terrible state that our infrastructure is in. And now that it is showing its absolute vulnerability, it has an even better case to be funded.
NKY thrives: Is increasing the state gas tax in Kentucky an option for financing?
Policinski: We haven’t increased the actual pennies since 1993. That is 27 years ago. The needs of our infrastructure have only grown; the cost of infrastructure has only grown. The gas tax, or the user fee I should say, is a viable option to investigate.
The predicament of that is you can’t just raise the gas tax and expect certain people not to be affected negatively. The tradeoff is, we understand that increasing this user fee is painful, but what you get on the other side is savings when it comes to how quickly you can move about.