A massive new highway project in the Queen City could reclaim valuable downtown acres and right a decades-old racial injustice, but only if leaders act.

By Ashley Stimpson 

During the three years I lived in Cincinnati, I spent the majority of my free time doing one of two things – shooting pool at Northside Tavern or sitting in traffic on either end of the Brent Spence Bridge.

For the uninitiated, the Brent Spence Bridge connects Cincinnati with Covington, Kentucky, funneling three converging interstates (I-75, I-71, and I-74) into four narrow lanes suspended above the Ohio River. Encased in steel the color of a Midwestern February, the double-decker span looks more like a racoon trap than a gateway to a great American city. It’s almost unfailingly aglow with brake lights. The Brent Spence is a fixture on the annual list of the Top Highway Bottlenecks in the US and has been called the nation’s most pressing infrastructure emergency. Indeed, when the bridge began shedding concrete in 2014, traffic jams took on a whole new layer of stress.

Construction on the bridge was completed in 1963, during the heyday of so-called “Urban Renewal,” when cities across the country built elaborate constellations of highways, largely to carry white people from their new homes in the suburbs to their jobs downtown and then back home again. When it opened, the Brent Spence held just three lanes in each direction. In 1985, a fourth lane was added by scrapping the emergency shoulders, making the then 18-year-old bridge “functionally obsolete,” or, in other words, structurally sound but with no room for improvement. Originally built to carry 85,000 vehicles a day, by 2015 the bridge was carrying more than double that number. As traffic surged, congestion on either side of the span could pile up for miles.

In 2004, officials from the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) and the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet (KTC) began considering ways to address the bridge’s shortcomings. By 2012, they had settled on what appeared to be the most feasible solution—a companion span built just west of the existing bridge—as well as the addition of more lanes and access points along the eight-mile corridor the bridge bisects.

For years those plans languished in an engineer’s filing cabinet, as Ohio and Kentucky fought bitterly over who should pay for the massive project. In the meantime, the last three U.S. presidents visited Cincinnati and used the failing bridge to rally support for their candidacy or legislative agendas. During a town hall in 2021, President Biden  told a crowd of supporters, “We gotta fix that damned bridge of yours.”

Folksiness aside, it’s Biden that looks poised to finally get it done. The 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has at last provided the windfall of federal cash the project needs. In the last year—as ODOT and KTC officials revisited that 2012 design—Ohio and Kentucky governors Mike DeWine and Andy Beshear have jointly applied for federal grants that will pay for more than half of the estimated $2.8 billion project, promising that construction will begin within a year if the funding is approved. Because the project has been shovel-ready for years, there’s no inconvenient paperwork or impact reports that might stand in its way.

But there is Brian Boland. The 55-year-old Cincinnati native would like those in charge to consider an alternative plan—one that started as his master’s thesis in Xavier University’s urban sustainability program and that evolved into a full-blown concept, thanks to a collaboration with region’s largest architecture firm, GBBN. Bridge Forward is what they call their coalition, and it’s dedicated to making sure the once-in-a-generation project will improve Cincinnati, not just hurdle people through it at 70 MPH. We’re supposed to be building back better, after all.

The crux of Bridge Forward’s plan addresses the “spaghetti” of interstates and off-ramps immediately north of the bridge in downtown Cincinnati. To give a sense of just how many strands are in this particular bowl of pasta – nine exits are crammed into a two-mile stretch of road, 1A, 1B, 1C, 1D, 1E, 1F, 1G, 2A, and 2B. It’s as messy as it sounds. It’s also a waste of precious land.

“I look at that spaghetti and I see 45 acres of downtown land that could be generating taxes, could have jobs on it, could have housing,” Boland says. “Instead, it’s a series of highway ramps. The grass has to be mowed, the snow has to be plowed, the potholes have to be dealt with. It’s taking money out of our coffers every day.” Bridge Forward’s proposal consolidates exiting traffic with collector streets that run parallel to the interstate, returning acres of land to productive use. “A benefit instead of a cost.”

The alternative plan also calls for trenching the interstate from 4th Street to 7th Street and building caps over the highway. These caps could be filled with all sorts of quality-of-life and tax-base-boosting amenities, such as green space, housing, or retail. Most importantly, the land would create an arguably more significant bridge than even the Brent Spence. It would create a way for people to easily travel between the city and its amputated West End, a connection that could go a long way in healing a decades-old racist travesty.

Like most interstate systems erected during the Urban Renewal era, Cincinnati’s downtown corridor was built over a thriving African American neighborhood. This one was called Kenyon Barr. According to a Cincinnati Magazine article, beginning in 1960, 25,737 people were evicted from their homes to make way for the highway, while approximately 10,295 dwelling units, 137 food stores, 118 restaurants, 86 barber shops, 80 churches, 24 dry cleaners, and 6 funeral homes were razed. At the time, city leaders promised they were trading a so-called slum for a futuristic-sounding development called Queensgate, where 13 “super-blocks” would brim with industry. What made them super, you ask? Parking lots. The plans called for “large parking compounds,” with no fewer than 10,000 parking spots.

In reality, Queensgate became anything but super. Today, the area is a depressing quagmire of half-vacant commercial warehouses—and a whole lot of empty parking spaces.

“We can’t make the same mistakes we did back in the 1960’s,” Boland says. “Do we want to build a project that looks like it was taken from the AASHTO Green Book in 1958? Or do we want to build a project that reflects reality today in 2022?”

Boland argues his plan would give Cincinnati the opportunity to create a new neighborhood in Queensgate, much like it did with the Banks, a district made possible by reducing the footprint of Fort Washington Way and reconnecting downtown with its blighted riverfront. That project also freed up enough land for the city to rebuild its football and baseball stadiums.

So far, ODOT isn’t paying attention. The agency has indicated that trenching the highway through downtown Cincinnati would be impossible, saying it would “require…a pretty steep grade to get traffic from subgrade in that trench up to the bridge.” That grade—at least 8% by ODOT’s calculations—would mean a lot of crawling trucks with flashing hazards.

In late November ODOT did appear to be inching toward a compromise when they announced slight modifications to the existing plan that would reclaim ten downtown acres by consolidating exits, but Boland says he wasn’t invited to those meetings. No one was. (Mayor Aftab Pureval has promised residents will be able to weigh in on the process next summer.)

Worse, Boland says ODOT’s fearmongering has made it difficult for Bridge Forward to garner support. Politicians and other would-be backers have been scared away by rumors that amending the design could push back timelines and risk crucial funding, a claim he says is disproved by ODOT’s November’s announcement.

If Bridge Forward has yet to clinch any big-name endorsements, it can at least point to a number of respectable institutions that say there’s good reason to be skeptical of ODOT’s plans to widen the highway through downtown.

The US Public Research Group, has called the plan “a boondoggle,” concluding that the project is unlikely to have any meaningful impact on congestion.

A 2022 analysis by the urban development nonprofit Strong Towns argues that the current plan 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 [Cincinnati], 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.”

In short, more of the same.

“This isn’t a plan for me, it’s a plan for my kids and grandkids,” say Boland, who still remembers his own coming-of-age in Cincinnati. “I grew up in the 80’s. And I loved my city. I don’t know why, but I did. Everyone in my high school class wanted to get the hell out—they wanted to go to Chicago or LA or New York. And now, people are coming back. And if we want people to keep coming back, it won’t be by building highways from 1950. We’re going to get it by building quality urban neighborhoods that are walkable, bikeable, and connected.”

I don’t live in Cincinnati anymore, but, like Boland, I love it. For lots of inexplicable reasons and quite a few nameable ones—it’s pretty hills, its 4th of July parade, its creamy whip. I don’t think the city deserves better; I think it deserves the best. I hope Cincinnatians will demand it.

Ashley Stimpson is freelance journalist based in Baltimore, Maryland. Read more of her work at www.ashleystimpson.com.