Armadas of trucks heading southeast from three major interstate highways all come together in Cincinnati to traverse the four southbound lanes of the Brent Spence. The bridge is part of a corridor that, according to one study, contains the second-most congested truck bottleneck in the United States, ranking behind Fort Lee, N.J., home to a perennially clogged interchange leading to the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan.
“It’s all the trucks,” said Al Bernstein, who lives in Covington, the smaller city on the Kentucky side of the bridge, and whose wife refuses to drive over it. “The local citizens — they get hurt. But it’s the trucks that cause it.”
One proposal that has circulated for years would spend $2.6 billion to build a new, much wider bridge next to the Brent Spence, doubling the lanes.
The challenge of overhauling the bridge corridor is not new to political leaders in Kentucky, Ohio or Washington, where it has long been held out as a symbol of the nation’s backlogged infrastructure needs. President Barack Obama made a speech in front of the bridge in 2011 as he pitched a major jobs and public works plan. President Donald J. Trump promised to fix it, too.
“I remember when McConnell started becoming a big person in Washington, we were like, ‘Oh, this is great. We’re going to get more federal money and we’re going to get the bridge done,’ ” said Paul Long, a resident of the Kentucky side of the river who would “do anything I can to avoid” driving across the bridge. “Then we had Boehner, who was the speaker of the House at the same time,” he added, referring to John A. Boehner, the retired 12-term congressman whose district sat just north of Cincinnati. “People were thinking, ‘Yes, definitely going to get it done now.’”
A conversation about a bridge that everyone wants to fix but no one ever does is a conversation about the dysfunction of modern politics itself. Debate over its fate quickly turns into a lament about how dogmatic philosophies — like Republicans’ blanket aversion to tax increases, or Democrats’ insistence on including an ambitious federal safety-net expansion in their public works plan — have supplanted the subtle art of the backroom deal.
Decades ago, such compromises were powered in large part by so-called earmarks, which lawmakers could insert in legislation to direct federal money toward their pet projects. But the practice came to be seen as a symbol of self-dealing and waste as the antispending Tea Party swept the Republican Party, and after a series of scandals — including one that led to the imprisonment of the lobbyist Jack Abramoff — Congress banned it in 2011.