The Brent Spence Boondoggle

1280px Brent Spence Bridge 2018

The Brent Spence Bridge was recently named the number two traffic bottleneck in country. Perhaps we can learn an important lesson from a past holder of that title: the Katy Freeway in Houston, Texas. In 2004, the American Highway Users Alliance named the Katy Freeway the second worst bottleneck in the nation. In response, the state of Texas pumped over $2 billion into widening the freeway, resulting in a total of 23 travel lanes, turning the Katy into the widest freeway in the world. What was the end result? Congestion became worse, and commute times ended up increasing by 25 minutes (30% over baseline), according to a 2015 analysis by City Observatory.

Let us now consider another possible outcome: What if they build the new bridge, but nobody comes? This was the situation in Louisville, which was analyzed by Aaron Renn of the Manhattan Institute in 2019. Renn compared the Brent Spence Bridge Corridor project to the I-65 Kennedy Bridge companion project in Louisville. In order to secure funding, Indiana and Kentucky agreed to toll the river crossing to generate the necessary revenue. The end result was a traffic redistribution throughout the highway system, as drivers shifted their behavior in order to avoid the tolls. The important point to note is that traffic on the previously congested I-65 bridge fell by half, while the number of lanes increased to twelve. Whereas the bridge was carrying 126,000 vehicles per day before the project, upon completion, traffic fell to 64,000 vehicles per day in 2018. As Renn summarizes, “the two states spent $1.3 billion on a new bridge to double capacity of a road whose traffic then fell by half… If Cincinnati uses tolls to expand the Brent Spence Bridge, which would be inevitable given the price tag of the project, there’s no reason not to expect the same thing to happen.”

This claim is staggering, and Cincinnati city leaders need to pay attention in order to avoid cooperating with a multi-billion dollar mistake. It borders on municipal governance malpractice for the leaders of a city that recently celebrated a paltry $1 million investment in pedestrian safety, to turn around and support a multi-billion project that will only serve to bring more automobile-dependent commuters into the city. Based on past experience in the region and across the country, it is not unreasonable to assume that this project will harm urban Cincinnati land values, frustrate attempts to repopulate the city center, promote further job dispersion and residential sprawl into Northern Kentucky, worsen automobile traffic in the city, exacerbate pedestrian safety issues, misallocate infrastructure investment that could be better used for improving public transit, and worsen regional air quality, along with other environmental harms. If that’s not enough to dissuade you, the project may not even be necessary, as Renn’s prior analysis suggests. 

A cost-free alternative to this project is possible, however. Municipal officials in the City of Cincinnati should advocate that the Brent Spence Bridge be tolled before pursuing any attempt at widening this interstate. The resulting funds should then be put to use improving public transit quality and efficiency, and improving bicycle and pedestrian safety initiatives. An important use of these funds could include expanding streetcar service north to the University of Cincinnati and across the river into Newport-Covington. City and regional officials should evaluate the post-toll traffic situation before committing billions of dollars to a project of dubious value.

Mayor Pureval is clearly an ambitious young leader. He should learn from the example of Harris County, Texas, Judge Lina Hidalgo, and work to oppose this project until more sensible alternatives are explored. Cincinnati has the potential to be a great Strong Town, but the process needs to start with Doing the Math on the Brent Spence Bridge Corridor Project.

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