Friday, October 26, 2007

Cincinnati Bridges, our potential forest fire

The news for the last few days has been filled with images of the California forest fires. The devastation is almost unimaginable but also it seems people were evacuated in time saving countless lives. Sitting here in Cincinnati, with is wet clay soil and recent heavy rainfall, it hard to imagine what it must be like to see everything around you on fire. While a forest fire is very unlikely around here, we do have our own potential time-bomb just waiting to go off.

Cincinnati’s identity is inextricably linked with the Ohio River. It is because of the Ohio River that explorers first established settlements along the Ohio and Licking Rivers. The Ohio River allowed the economy of Cincinnati to first develop because of the commerce transported by first canal boats and later river boats. Many goods were shipped along the Ohio River but mainly pork. Before anyone ever heard of Chicago as the meat processing capital of the US, Cincinnati had the largest number of slaughter yards. You can’t live along the river and have a thriving economy without bridges. Cincinnati is no exception and has presently has six. In no particular order these are;

1. Roebling Suspension bridge (built in 1867)
2. I-75/71 Brent Spence bridge (built in 1963)
3. The Chesapeake & Ohio RR bridge (built in 1929) and Clay Wade Bailey bridge (built in 1974) stand immediately next to one another and share two piers in the middle of the river
4. I-471 Daniel Carter Beard bridge (built in 1981)
5. I-275 Combs Hehl bridge (built in 1979)
6. Taylor Southgate bridge (built in 1995 to replace the old Central Bridge)

Of these, the Brent Spence bridge has come to national attention after the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed back in August. The Brent Spence bridge merges two major interstates, I-75 and I-71, as traffic crosses between Ohio and Kentucky. The travel lanes are too narrow, and the merge lanes are too short. The signs are difficult to see, and the on- and off-ramps are spaced too closely together forcing sudden turns and braking by drivers unfamiliar with the exits. There's no room at all for emergency stops. Speeds vary within just several thousand feet. Daily use by cars and trucks long ago surpassed maximum design limits.

The Brent Spence bridge is primarily responsible for the urban development of Northern Kentucky (further increasing the traffic flow for this bridge). Some recent statistics about the Brent Spence Bridge that have come to light as a result of the tragedy in Minneapolis:

- The Brent Spence Bridge is one of only 15 major interstate bridges in the country labeled by the federal government as "functionally obsolete" for failure to meet safety or traffic flow standards.

- It ranks No. 7 among those bridges for highest crash rate, although deaths are few.
- Motorists are five times more likely to have a wreck on the bridge than on the interstate systems of Ohio, Kentucky or Indiana. About eight bridge accidents a month are bad enough to require police presence.

- Big trucks running side by side on the bridge have less than a yard of space between them. Remarkably, the big rigs account for just 11 percent of vehicles involved in reported accidents.

- Even minor mishaps can back up traffic for seven miles or more each way.

The bridge is not in danger of falling down, according to experts, however replacing the bridge would cost $750 million or more. It will take 12-15 years to build a new bridge and in the meantime traffic will continue to increase decreasing the life expectancy of this bridge. A failure of the bridge, especially at peak traffic times, could be devastating.

A response to the Brent Spence bridge disaster would be extremely complicated and slow. Both Ohio and Kentucky first responders and emergency management agencies would have to try and navigate the Ohio River to get survivors out (which becomes even more dire during the winter months with freezing water and ice flows complicating rescue operations). Traffic would be backed up for miles making it difficult, if not impossible, to get emergency vehicles in to evacuate casualties. Adjacent bridges would immediately be overwhelmed by the shift of traffic patterns and the flow of emergency response equipment. Downtown Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky would be put into gridlock. Many businesses would have to temporarily shut-down as workers and supplies could not get into town using the Interstate systems.

Unlike a forest fire or hurricane, if the bridge ever fails it will be without warning. We have about as much advance notice as we are ever going to get. All of us need to think about what such a cataclysmic event will mean to our families, our businesses and our community.

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