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How State Transportation Officials Reached Numbers to Discount Brent Spence Alternative

So, here's what happened.

Kentucky Secretary of Transportation Mike Hancock and Ohio Department of Transportation director Jerry Wray wrote an op-ed that was published in The River City News and at other media outlets. In their editorial, Hancock and Wray blasted the proposed Cincinnati Eastern Bypass (a proposed outer loop that would be created through the rural parts of Northern Kentucky) and dismissed it as a plausible alternative to the estimated $2.6 billion Brent Spence Bridge project. 

Here is part of what they wrote:

The Eastern Bypass is not a new, feasible, or good idea. Its Kentucky section has roots in a previous proposal – a “Northern Kentucky Cross County Highway” – that was the subject of an engineering study in 1987. The study identified three potential alignments, ranging in length from 12 to 23 miles and in cost from $115 million to $230 million in 1990 dollars. Adjusted for 25 years of inflation, the estimated cost of construction alone for the study’s recommended alignment would be $2.2 billion today and that doesn’t include Ohio’s portion. This does not even take into account the increased cost for right of way acquisition or the expense of overcoming the enormous environmental and terrain challenges.

The current estimated cost of the Brent Spence Bridge Corridor Project is $2.6 billion, not the $3.8 billion that has been referenced by supporters of alternative plans. Second, sixty-eight miles of new, four-lane highway constructed over challenging terrain in both Kentucky and Ohio – not to mention new bridges over the Ohio River and Licking River – could easily top $5 billion. The alternatives to replacing the Brent Spence Bridge are not quick, simple or a bargain. KYTC and ODOT must continue to work to find a real solution that can bring not only traffic congestion relief, but huge economic benefits to both states, not an idea promoted by land developers for the sake of land development.

The dollar figures referenced in the op-ed caught the eye and the ire of Northern Kentucky United, the vehemently anti-toll organization. Some of its members work to promote the Cincinnati Eastern Bypass plan. A statement was issued shortly after the op-ed was published:

They make a fairly compelling case, until you realize their whole argument relies on a massive calculation error.

Director Wray and Secretary Hancock used a 25 year old study from a completely different road to estimate the cost of the currently proposed bypass:

“The study identified three potential alignments, ranging in length from 12 to 23 miles and in cost from $115 million to $230 million in 1990 dollars.”

They went on to explain:

“Adjusted for 25 years of inflation, the estimated cost of construction alone for the study’s recommended alignment would be $2.2 billion today and that doesn’t include Ohio’s portion.”

Their final analysis was that the Cincy Eastern Bypass “could easily top $5 billion.”

There’s just one problem. The most expensive alignment mentioned, $230 million in 1990 dollars, adjusted for inflation over 25 years, isn’t $2.2 billion dollars. It’s roughly $420 million in 2015 dollars.

We double checked the math, and used two different inflation indices (Consumer Price Index and ENR Cost of Construction Index). The results were the same regardless of inflation index: $230 million in 1990 dollars adjusted for cost of inflation over 25 years is roughly $420 million in 2015 dollars, not $2.2 billion.

The Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Region deserves better. The public deserves accurate, thoughtful analysis about our region’s transportation needs, not shoddy math and ad hominem attacks.

Following that statement, The River City News asked the transportation officials to provide the methods by which they reached the dollar figures that they presented. It took a couple of weeks, but the Kentucky Department of Transportation provided further information (though, spokesman Chuck Wolfe offered updates on the report's progress).

"There cannot be a detailed estimate in the absence of a detailed design. But our KYTC District 6 engineers made reasonable extrapolations from comparatively recent experience in actual construction of infrastructure such as four-lane roadways, interchanges and bridges," KYTC spokesman Chuck Wolfe wrote in the email that accompanied the data. "Aside from whether the once-proposed Cross County Highway aligns precisely with any bypass plan currently being promoted, it should be obvious that $1.1 billion falls far short of the cost of 67 or 68 miles of interstate-type roadway, plus river crossings.

"KYTC has no plan to further respond to proponents of a bypass. Like our partners at ODOT, we intend to focus on the real and immediate task at hand: Finding a solution to the problems posed by an overburdened, functionally obsolete, 52-year-old bridge that exacts its own toll in the cost of lost time, lost productivity and hazardous travel. The Brent Spence Bridge will only get older and more costly with each day of delay."

So, as explained by the transportation officials, this is how they reached their calculations (the following is printed in full from the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet):

The proposed Cross County Highway through Northern Kentucky had a preferred route of extending I-71 across Boone, Kenton, and Campbell Counties, making a new Ohio River Crossing at Ross, and connecting to I-275 at 8 Mile Road.

This route would include:
  • Boone County – 1 interchange, 1.5 miles of Interstate roadway, 1 mile of access road
  • Kenton County – 3 interchanges, 8.5 miles of Interstate roadway, 3 miles of access road
  • Campbell County – 4 interchanges, 10.7 miles of Interstate roadway, 2 miles of access road
  • Hamilton County – 2 interchanges, 1.8 miles of Interstate roadway, 1 mile of access road
TOTAL – 10 interchanges, 22.5 miles of interstate roadway, 7 miles of access roads, two river crossings, 10 non-interchange state route crossings
  • The last interchange constructed in District 6 was on I-71 in Gallatin County.  This work occurred in 2008 and cost approximately $25 million.
  • The last divided highway District 6 constructed was US 27 in Campbell County in 2010, costing $15 million per mile. The median and shoulders were not designed to interstate standards, nor were there as many lanes as would be needed on the Cross County Highway. Adjusting these costs would bring the cost of an interstate facility to $25 million per mile.
  • The last new, large river crossing in this area was the US 62 bridge in Maysville. It cost $40 million in 1998. Adjusted for inflation brings the cost  to approximately $55 million. The US 62 bridge has four lanes, while the Cross County would need eight. So, a second, companion bridge would bring the total to $110 million.
In Northern Kentucky along KY 536 in Boone and Kenton counties, we are experiencing right of way (R/W) costs of $6 million per mile. This is for a much narrower road than the proposed Cross County – 85 feet of R/W and easements vs. more than 300 feet.  
Adjusted, the estimate would be over $22 million per mile.
  • R/W for KY 536 Interchange reconstruction would be approximately $8.5 million.
Estimated cost of this project in today’s dollars based on the preferred alignment in the 1987 study:
Design – $250,000,000
R/W – $625,000,000
Utilities – $150,000,000
Construction – $1,160,000,000
TOTAL – $2,185,000,000
In addition, further upgrades of I-275 in Ohio likely would be needed to make this connection beyond the new interchange, such as upgrades to 5 Mile and Beechmont interchanges and widening between 5 Mile and Beechmont:
Design –  $10,000,000
R/W – $50,000,000
Utilities – $15,000,000
Construction – $100,000,000
TOTAL I-275 work in Ohio – $175,000,000
Total Project Cost in 2014 dollars – $2,360,000,000
The Planning Study for KY 536 through Boone, Kenton and Campbell Counties started in 1998 and was completed in 2000 – a 2-year process. Design of KY 536 between US 42 and I-75, and from US 25 to KY 17 started in 2000. We began purchasing property between US 42 and I-75 in 2012 and hope to go to construction in 2016 – 18 years from the beginning of planning.
For KY 536 between US 25 and KY 17 we hope to start purchasing property in 2015 and go to construction in 2018 – 20 years from the beginning of planning.
These two examples of large projects in the same corridor demonstrate that from conception to asphalt being placed, it is realistic to expect 20 years. A very aggressive schedule would be 15 years. Inflation for the last 10 years has averaged 2.6 percent.
  • Total Project Cost with 15-year schedule, assuming design would be fully authorized in 2016 – $3,750,000,000
  • Total Project Cost with 20-year schedule, also starting in 2016 – $4,260,000,000

-Michael Monks, editor & publisher