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Bellevue at 150: A History of I-471 and Its Lasting Impact

The City of Bellevue turns 150 years old in 2020, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, its sesquicentennial celebrations have been postponed for a year. In the meantime, local writer and attorney James Dady is writing some pieces about the city and they will be published at The River City News. This is one in a series.

Bellevue has learned, after nearly four decades, to come to terms with I-471, the motor-traffic behemoth at its western edge, accepting the benefits it affords but also shouldering its considerable burdens.

The mile of the freeway Bellevue shares with Newport is one of some 42,500 miles of the interstate system first authorized by Congress in 1956 with the enthusiastic support of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. 

Within a few minutes by car from either of Bellevue’s two interchanges lies I-75, which connects Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with the outskirts of Miami, Florida, and all points between. Bellevue is within fifteen minutes of I-74, which runs across the Mississippi River to Davenport, Iowa, and enjoys direct access with nary a traffic light to endure the entire length of I-71 from Cleveland to Louisville.

The freeway puts Bellevue within a 15-minute drive of every other freeway in the metropolitan area, and within an easy commute of jobs, shopping, and family, social, religious, and cultural connections. I-471 converted Bellevue from an aging river town a little out of the way into a player in the marketplace of cities in the region.

Local politicians and civic boosters from the early 1960s until the freeway came on line in the fall of 1981 thumped hard for its construction.

“Campbell County couldn’t have been expected to experience any growth at all if we had been shut out of the interstate system,” said Terry Mann in 1981, then a state representative.

Securing appropriations for the design and funding of the freeway was a hardy biennial for the northern Kentucky legislative delegation from the time he took office as a state representative in 1964, recalled the late Arthur L. Schmidt in 1981.

Lambert Hehl, Jr., served in a passel of jobs in state and local government. He saw one of his main missions as a competition for resources with Kenton County. If Kenton County had I-75, Campbell County should have its own interstate, reasoned Mr. Hehl, who passed in 2019 at the age of 95.

Mr. Hehl was prominent enough in twentieth century northern Kentucky annals that the I-275 bridge across the Ohio River bridge is named for him and for Gov. Bert T. Combs.

“One regret I have is that I didn’t stay in the (Kentucky) Senate longer and move I-471 along faster,” he said as the highway was about to come online 39 years ago.

Judge Hehl recalled then that I-471 was first scheduled to be included in the interstate system during the administration of President John F. Kennedy (1961-63). After Kennedy was assassinated, Gov. Bert T. Combs met with JFK's successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, when the subject of I-471 came up. Whatever else might be said about him, Lyndon Johnson had the keenest of instincts for the political value of public works projects. Getting static about his Vietnam War policy from Senator Frank Church, Johnson called Church and asked where he was getting his ideas about Vietnam. From Walter Lippmann, then a famous foreign affairs columnist, Church answered. “Frank, next time you want a dam in Idaho, you can go and ask Walter Lippmann for it,” President Johnson said. 

When he asked Combs at the fateful 1963 meeting about I-471, Judge Hehl quotes Gov. Combs as saying, “Jack wanted Kentucky to have this.”

Conflict over the design and construction of the freeway seen through the lens of history was inevitable.

An early path proposed was to bring I-71 across the Ohio River at the site of the current I-471 bridge and to turn it west to connect with I-75 in Covington, vaulting across the Licking River and the C&O Viaduct. Dubbed grandly as the “Riverside Expressway,” this link in the system would have stymied riverfront development in Newport and Covington, and effectively destroyed what have become Newport’s East Row and Covington’s Licking Riverside historic districts. The engineering rationale of this version of I-471 was to relieve congestion on Cincinnati’s Fort Washington Way.

The plan was as popular in northern Kentucky as scarlet fever and was soon abandoned.

Eventually, more or less the current path of I-471 was settled on: to connect I-71 with I-471, to cross the river with a new bridge, and to run the highway south to I-275 in Highland Heights.

Local lobbying and agitating prodded state engineers to alter the highway’s course slightly to avoid destruction of Newport High School’s football stadium and to save the site of a planned vocational school which eventually became Newport High School.

Some of the he necessary lobbying and agitating was seen to by former state Rep. William I. “Bill” Donnermeyer, Democrat of Bellevue, who had no problem supplying ample I-471 history after recently celebrating his 96th birthday.

The foot of the slope of what was to become the Bonnie Leslie National Historic District was sacrificed for the highway. A twining of Bonnie Leslie and Glazier Avenues, which veered southwest, then southeast and terminated at Memorial Parkway, was sacrificed.

Fifteen residences on Glazier were taken; only the two between the freeway and Wilson Road remain. Crawford Avenue, now bereft of even a street sign, lost all 11 of its residences. Five residences on Bonnie Leslie were lost, some of them examples of the Tudor Revival style found elsewhere in the neighborhood.  All families in I-471’s path were contacted, compensated, and relocated. Eminent domain can be a heavy-handed government process.

The carving of the path of a superhighway through urban neighborhoods was expensive, complicated, and difficult. The process left psychic scars. A particular trouble spot on the eastern side of the construction site was at the foot of Waterworks Road, where an underground creek flowing north from Southgate, converges with Woodlawn Creek to form the head of Taylor Creek. I-471 construction exacerbated flood conditions there, Mr. Donnermeyer recalls. Mudslides were common

The process of earth-moving by blasting often broke windows in the low-lying portions of Geiger Avenue. Mr. Donnermeyer suspected construction crews were enhancing their explosives in order to move earth faster to meet a deadline. He recalls heading downhill from his house at the upper end of Bonnie Leslie to have it out with the blasters.

Among those relocated were Mike and Vivian Auteri, who were living in an apartment on Loraine Court just over the Bellevue-Newport line south of Memorial Parkway. Their building was claimed for what was to become the northbound ramp of I-471 at the Tenth Street-Memorial Parkway interchange, also known as Kentucky 1120. 

A gentleman from the highway department came to their door one day in 1969, and offered them a price to relocate, Mrs. Auteri recalls. There was no haggling. The Auteris pocketed nearly enough in the public money to make the down payment on the house on Clark Street in Bellevue where they have lived for 51 years. Their elder son Mike grew up to become chief of the Bellevue-Dayton Fire Department, now retired. Their other son Anthony works at Jack Casino near the northern terminus of I-471. The senior Mike Auteri had been a football star at Bellevue High School, and is a member of its athletic hall of fame. Bellevue for him was home.

The adjustment to the freeway was more difficult elsewhere.

Some 200 homes were taken in Newport, plus some small-scale mom-and-pop businesses. The extreme northeast corner of the city was completely encircled by Dave Cowens Drive and its northbound ramp to the freeway. The little neighborhood, became widely known as “The Island,” and is still tidy in spite of its isolation.

Bob Kling, who later became Campbell County Clerk, saw a good portion of his neighborhood disappear. His house on what was then Ohio Avenue faced the freeway across the street. 

“Cote-Brilliante is pretty well hacked up,” he said as the freeway was about to open.

Accepting the inevitable but not liking it very much was Ralph Mussman, who was then Newport city manager and who owned a fine Victorian home at Fifth and Monroe. 

“It’ll be a quick way to get around Cincinnati to Florida,” he said.

Newport also dealt with landslides, mud, dust, broken windows, and debris as the highway’s path was cut. The southbound off-ramp from the freeway into East Newport ducks briefly into the street grid and then turns north on Park Avenue to connect with Dave Cowens Drive, or Kentucky Route 8. There is no other southbound off-ramp before Tenth Street. A hardy band of advocates in Newport have argued vociferously and effectively against any further intrusion of the freeway into their neighborhood of handsome Victorian homes.

The attitude is similar in Bellevue, which promises in the Goals and Objectives of its Comprehensive Plan, “Aggressive, effective advocacy for Bellevue’s interests … concerning the location and configuration of interstate ramps and interchanges.”

The I-471 bride spanning the Ohio and the mile of the freeway intended to connect it to I-71 were planned as the first segments to open. Bids for the bridge were let in the fall of 1970. The bowstring arch span was built between November, 1971, and October 5, 1976, but access to it was limited while the other sections of the highway remained under construction. 

The bridge is named commonly called the Big Mac Bridge for its resemblance to the twin arches of a McDonald’s franchise. The bridge is named officially for Daniel Carter Beard, a Cincinnati native born in 1850, who as a lad explored the banks of the Ohio and Licking rivers, and who founded a forerunner of the Boy Scouts. He lived for a time in a fine house still gracing a bluff above the Licking at 322 East Third Street in Covington. It is interesting to speculate whether the bridge would have been named for him had the house been demolished according to the original design of I-471.

The one-mile section connecting I-471 with I-71 was beset by geologic upheaval. A severe landslide on the western slope of Mt. Adams delayed the project. The foundations of many buildings along Kilgour and Baum streets were corrupted. Ten were damaged beyond repair. After the compensating and relocating and the litigation of lawsuits was concluded 32 businesses and 330 families had moved on. Some claims required litigation to resolve. As construction resumed in 1978, another landslide occurred.

The solution this time was the elaborate retaining wall visible from the I-471 northbound ramp to Fort Washington Way. The system includes 161 vertical concrete pilings with structural steel. Bundles of cable hold 137 of the pilings in place against the gravitational force of the Mt. Adams elevation. Costs for the Ohio portion of the freeway reached $48 million, which made it at the time the most expensive mile in the interstate system.

In all, $85 million in 1980 dollars, worth $268 million today, was spent on I-471: $1.7 million for design, $12.1 million for the acquisition of right of way, $1.3 million for utility relocation, and $70 million for construction.

I-471 opened for traffic between Grand Avenue and the U.S. 27 interchange December 22, 1980. The section between Memorial Parkway and the bridge opened the next day. The last link between Memorial Parkway and Grand opened September 18, 1981, at a ceremony at which Gov. John Y. Brown, Jr., officiated. 

The freeway covers 4.8 miles. It is probably the final link in the interstate system in Kentucky. The portion of highway between I-275 and U.S. 27 in Highland Heights near the campus of Northern Kentucky University is not part of I-471 and is called in the highway engineer’s parlance the “Southern Spur.” Motorists who use I-471 for trips originating in Cincinnati’s southeastern suburbs are perhaps the only ones in the U.S. who travel through another state to reach the downtown in the state where their trips began.

Bellevue and other cities along I-471 lost some of their intimacy and historic feel, and endure the noise of 100,000 vehicles per day plying the highway, and the traffic volumes it deposits into their streets. They gained a greater purchase in the modern world. These are the wages of civilization.

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