Source: Cincinnati Business Courier
By Chris Wetterich
Greater Cincinnati, like every community across the United States, may be in line for once-in-a-generation infrastructure investments if President Joe Biden and Congress can agree on a plan and a way to pay for it in the coming months. That’s a big “if,” but the region has plenty of nettlesome problems that may be years or decades away from being solved unless the federal government can provide assistance and financial resources.
A major issue for the business community will be Biden’s plan to raise taxes on corporate income in order to fund the $1.7 trillion proposal, which Biden modified recently to court GOP votes. Recently, others have pushed alternatives to tax increases. To wit, increased enforcement of existing laws to collect unpaid taxes and user fees like a gas tax increase also have been floated.
The Business Courier talked with civic, political and business leaders, and drew upon years of regional coverage for this hit list of top infrastructure needs. Some of the choices are obvious, while others likely will spark argument.
The bridge on everyone's list comes with an asterisk
If any project is going to get funding under a federal infrastructure bill, local officials believe it will be the Brent Spence Bridge project. Ohio, Kentucky and local officials have long touted the Brent Spence’s role in moving nearly 3% of the nation’s gross domestic product.
Top business leaders reignited the push for the project after last year’s massive fire. It stemmed from a truck collision that closed the bridge for nearly six weeks.
But the state of Kentucky remains the sticking point. If tolls are going to be a part of any financing plan, the Kentucky legislature would have to first remove a ban on tolling the bridge. Covington Mayor Joe Meyer remains a staunch opponent, believing his community will be hurt by the bridge’s wide footprint and by the diversion of traffic from people seeking to avoid tolls. Ohio officials recently pledged to work with Covington to mitigate impacts, but no deal has been struck.
“There’s no way when the president says he’s going to fix the 10 most economically significant bridges that the Brent Spence Bridge isn’t on that list,” said Pete Metz, the Cincinnati USA Chamber’s transportation policy manager.
Somehow, the leader of the project pack
A decade ago, few would have thought the replacement for the Western Hills Viaduct, which carries 55,000 cars a day, would be on a path toward completion before the Brent Spence Bridge, which carries about 160,000. But that’s the outlook in 2021, according to Hamilton County Engineer Eric Beck.
“I think our momentum is a little bigger than theirs,” Beck said of the viaduct. “I’m assuming we will be completed before they are.”
Work will begin this year. Properties in the right-of-way will be demolished. A Duke Energy substation also will have to be moved. The 2020 Hamilton County transportation sales tax can be tapped to fill in project gaps. About $30 million will be available on a cash basis in the first year, although it’s unlikely all of it will be spent on the viaduct.
The viaduct is essential, said Henry Frondorf, vice chair of the Hamilton County Transportation Improvement District, a governing body that allocates funding for transportation projects in the region.
“People always think of it as a West Side thing. But right across the viaduct you have the University of Cincinnati. If there’s a hospital run, a lot of those ambulances are coming down to the viaduct to get to the West Side,” he said. “There’s not an easy way to get to (the West Side) without that direct connection. The other viaduct or bridges are not capable of supporting those extra 55,000 cars a day.”
The new bridge will be more pedestrian-friendly, with two wide paths, which could help it secure federal money. The state recently agreed to take responsibility for building new ramps from I-75.
“One of the reasons it was struggling for funding was because the connection to I-75 wasn’t in there,” Frondorf said. The federal government viewed it as, “not a regional project.”
A bus more folks could get on board with
As a part of its broad Reinventing Metro plan, the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority already anticipates two bus-rapid transit lines along corridors to be selected. Using local matching funds from the 2020 Hamilton County transportation tax, the agency expects to be able to secure money from existing federal funds, said CEO Darryl Haley.
But a major national infrastructure plan would allow Metro to add two other BRT lines, plan for additional ones, and buy new electric buses, Haley said.
BRT is essentially a bus line that acts like a rail line, with frequent service. It has dedicated bus lanes along routes, traffic signals that give buses traffic priority, stations, fewer stops, and a fare system where a rider pays before boarding the bus.
“A lot of businesses (are) struggling to hire people,” Haley said. “With BRT, it’s going to connect the people who need the jobs to those jobs in a convenient way.”
BRT speeds up buses so they become even more efficient than driving. “It’ll change the view people have of public transportation,” Haley said. “Get out of your car. Get on the bus. You can work while you’re on it. It starts to make sense.”
Consultants will review Metro’s planned BRT routes along Hamilton Avenue, Reading Road, Montgomery Road and Glenway Avenue for traffic flow, density and the possibility of bus-only lanes, Haley said.
According to Metz, the transportation tax money will make a major difference with the feds.
“We’ve set up Cincinnati and SORTA to be one of the best-performing transit agencies in the country,” he said. The federal government is “going to look at places that are investing in transportation systems and Cincinnati is rapidly moving up that list.”
A "crown" jewel for the Queen City
Five years ago, the biking community announced a sweeping vision for a network of bicycle and pedestrian trails throughout Cincinnati and Hamilton County that would be used not only for recreation but as a transportation network. They’ve named it CROWN, for Cincinnati Riding or Walking Network.
Wasson Way, a key portion that will run from Uptown to Fairfax, will be completed in the next few years. Meanwhile, the city has an agreement to acquire the rights to build a trail along the Oasis Railway, which will connect downtown to the Little Miami Trail.
Bike trails are an amenity that attracts development, talent and jobs, leaders say. “When you buy a house, being next to a bike trail is a huge draw,” said Hamilton County Commissioner Denise Driehaus. “The pandemic has a lot to do with renewed energy for outdoor recreation and people getting to and fro on bike lanes. That is a forward-thinking way to think about infrastructure.”
With the eastern part of the loop underway, planners are now talking about a key north-south leg that runs along the Mill Creek from downtown to Northside, through industrial and impoverished communities. “The Mill Creek corridor is best situated for what we’re hearing is going to be a priority for the Biden administration’s plan, which is equity,” said Wade Johnston, the director of Tristate Trails, a key part of Green Umbrella, the sustainability group helping lead efforts to get CROWN constructed.
Johnston noted that the Mill Creek corridor communities were bisected and damaged economically by I-75. From there, spurs can be built out to West Side neighborhoods that are underserved. “We hope we can create support for that investment and prioritize affordable housing along the corridor,” Johnston said. “We hope the trail could reconnect these neighborhoods and make it easier and more comfortable to ride your bike.”
Who says you can't create more land?
Driehaus chuckled at the notion of the long-awaited decks over Fort Washington Way being a top regional infrastructure priority, noting that the city and county have undeveloped land at the Banks that still needs to be built. “I understand the vision,” she said. “I am more focused on the Banks and finishing what we started than investing in the decks. We do need to do some more infrastructure work.” Nevertheless, if the federal government is willing to pay for them, Driehaus said she would consider it.
When Fort Washington Way was narrowed, it was rebuilt with the capability to construct decks or podiums that would hold up to a five-story building. In 2017, when the region was trying to lure Amazon’s second headquarters, a single deck was estimated to cost $25 million. In 2019, Mayor John Cranley and the late Commissioner Todd Portune pledged to work together on options to build them.
The case for the decks is simple: Building them would fully reconnect the riverfront to downtown, and the city and county would be able to create four brand-new downtown blocks ripe for post-pandemic development, whether it be a park, office, residential or retail property. Or perhaps all of the above.
Portune believed the region could secure the funding for one deck and use the property, sales and income tax generated to construct the next one and so on.
“Capping the highway, in theory, would pay for itself,” Frondorf said. “They have to sell it like that.”