Will tiny Lewisburg become 'collateral damage' in the bridge debate?

When the Brent Spence Bridge opened in1963, it was a critical link in the nation’s still-evolving interstate highway system, carrying three lanes of one the country’s busiest highways, Interstate 75, across the Ohio River.

Although it linked Ohio and Kentucky, the bridge cut off the little neighborhood of Lewisburg from the rest of its Covington neighbors. With interstate traffic roaring past day and night, and a concrete underpass standing in the way of the neighborhood and the rest of the city, Lewisburg became something of an island.  Crime increased, renters moved in, and businesses stayed out.

Over the last 58 years, traffic on the bridge doubled, but the bridge stayed the same – only 42 feet wide, and now carrying more than 160,000 vehicles a day.

Now, with a $2 trillion infrastructure bill on the table in Washington, talk about a new I-75 bridge across the Ohio has picked up again after years of going nowhere. And the 1,000-resident enclave of Lewisburg again stands to be affected, perhaps more than any Northern Kentucky community.

Covington Mayor Joe Meyer and the city’s four city commissioners have called for a rethinking of the plan for a new Brent Spence, asking for a new solution that would be cheaper, fairer, and less disruptive to the city’s residents.

"Our city was extremely damaged in the 1960s when the bridge went in," Meyer said on a recent "Kentucky Tonight" statewide news program. "Our city was cut in half. This exacerbates that."

"How can I tell the people in my city that we should be collateral damage to this funding mechanism for a bridge that does not serve our community?" Meyer said. "It serves those who drive through our community."

But some in Lewisburg have accepted the 20-year debate over a new bridge as a fact of life. And investment has continued, even grown, despite longstanding plans for a new bridge that would take out part of the neighborhood.  Some doubt that the new span will ever be built.

Steven Hill and his wife, Jennifer Kelley, live in a 150-year-old home on Western Avenue. She’s lived there since 2000; he moved in after they were married in 2014. He describes the bridge debate as “15 years of limbo,” for Lewisburg. Despite Western Avenue being close to the footprint of the proposed new bridge, he and his wife are staying put.

“We haven’t thought about moving,” he says.

He is semi-retired, and works from home building furniture and carpentry work. The highway noise is already significant, but even with 16 more lanes on the drawing board, they don’t plan on finding a new home.

Neither does Bob Roudebush, who bought his 105-year-old house on Crescent Avenue in 2009.  Although he already had a purchase contract on a house in Cincinnati, he fell for the one he happened to see in Lewisburg, which had been rehabbed with care for its historic features.

“I love older houses,” he says.

Three months after he bought the house, and just after he had built a deck and cleared trees in the backyard to open up a beautiful view, he received a letter from the state. “It said that within three years, the house would be taken for the new Brent Spence,” he says. His property would be needed to build a retaining wall.

That was 12 years ago.

At that rate, he doubts the bridge will ever be built. “I don’t think I’ll see it in my lifetime,” he says.

A new bridge has been proposed since at least 1998 – 23 years ago – when it was declared “functionally obsolete” by the Federal Highway Administration because it carried twice as much traffic as it was built for, had limited visibility, and – bottom line – was unsafe.

Although the on ramp to the span is practically in his backyard, “I will not drive that bridge,” he says. “There’s always a wreck or something. It’s dangerous. The last time I drove that bridge, it was with white knuckles.”

Even though his house would have to go under current plans, he’s philosophical about it, and sees the bigger picture. A new bridge, he says, “is absolutely necessary.”

“As much as I love my little house, it’s alright to have it taken,” he says. The feds, he believes, would pay a fair value for it. “It’s not a Covington issue, it’s a national issue,” he says.

That's true. The Brent Spence, which also carries Interstate 71 across the Ohio, connects 10 states, from Michigan to Florida, and is one of the busiest trucking routes in the country.

Christina Rule drives it every day from her Lewisburg home to her job at a local television station. She and her husband bought a house in the community in 2015, moving from Philadelphia.

“The neighborhood was super cute,” she says. “It was a little sketchy at the time, with a lot of abandoned houses, but it was charming, and very affordable, especially for us coming from a bigger city.”

The seller of the home told them about the bridge proposals, and so did neighbors as soon as they moved in. “From the moment we bought the home, it was the first thing we heard about,” she says.

“They’ve been hearing about all these plans, but nobody takes it seriously because it’s been in the conversation for so long,” she says. “People know we need a solution, but nothing gets done.”

But investment continues in the neighborhood. Lewisburg was awarded one of the first of Covington's competitive RIPPLE Effect grants in 2019.  Applications were scored by city staff in several areas, including whether projects serve low- and moderate-income people; whether its ready to launch, and the potential impact on the surrounding neighborhood and businesses.

Lewisburg's proposal focused on the businesses at the bend of West Pike Street near Montague Road and Western Avenue, as additional properties have been purchased for redevelopment for business and residential use, and some properties have been awarded city incentives for façade improvements, upper-floor residential rehabs, and lead hazard reduction. A neighborhood gateway is planned that may include a sculptural gateway and a mural. And streetscape improvements around the intersection have begun.

When Christina Rule bought her house, there were five or six abnadoned houses on the street. but most of those have now been renovated, rented, or sold, she says.
And in recent years, two new condo projects have been completed up the hill from the business district, capitalizing on gorgeous views of downtown Cincinnati.

The new Brent Spence bridge may or may not ever be built. But Lewisburg won't remain in limbo.  

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Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is the managing editor of NKY Thrives, an award-winning journalist, and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading or watching classic movies.