One of the region's largest infrastructure needs could soon have the money to get fixed.
No, not the Brent Spence Bridge. The other bridge, the Western Hills Viaduct.
The proceeds from the 0.8% sales tax increase approved by voters in May 2020 will cover the remaining $205 million needed to build a new viaduct, based on the plan presented Tuesday by the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority's infrastructure committee.
The SORTA board must still approve the plan next week. But Tuesday's vote is the first indication what projects the new sales tax from Issue 7 will pay for.
"Local leaders made this happen and our county will be better off for generations to come because voters supported Issue 7," said Kreg Keesee, chair of the SORTA board.
The infrastructure committee also approved the plan for 30 other projects throughout Hamilton County, including new roads and sidewalks that would be done over the next two years.
"For anyone who questioned how issue 7 would positively affect Hamilton county, right here look at this," said Brendon Cull, SORTA board member and executive vice president for the Cincinnati USA Chamber of Commerce.
The sales tax raises about $100 million annually for the bus system and another $30 million each year for roads and bridges.
The largest project is the viaduct. The city, county and transportation officials had already secured $125 million in federal, state and local funds for the $330 million project. That left about $205 million still needed, money that will now come from the sales tax.
The sales tax will pay $8.2 million a year for 25 years and pay off the bonds that will finance construction.
This matters because the 88-year-old viaduct is one of the main entrances to Cincinnati's West Side, crossing Mill Creek and a large railyard. Since 2009, leaders have talked about replacing the deteriorating double-decker structure. Those talks grew in importance in 2017 when a piece of concrete from the viaduct fell onto a car. No one was injured, but the incident left many to question the safety of the bridge.
People have posted pictures on social media showing cracks and gaps in the bridge.
The federal government has deemed the viaduct structurally deficient, but the Ohio Department of Transportation has deemed it safe.
"This is a huge priority for our county for more than a decade," Cull said. "It has always been a challenge because the money has not been available. The Western Hills Viaduct is going to happen, and it is now fully funded."
Officials have said in the past construction could begin as early as 2022. If that happens, then the bridge could be completed by 2028, according to a memo in 2020 from Cincinnati City Manager Paula Boggs Muething. County engineer Eric Beck said property acquisition and design have already started.
Mayor John Cranley said he hopes the project will be completed earlier than 2028. There's already enough money between the city and county to start building, he said.
"We are seeing hundreds of millions of dollars in new investment on the West Side," said Cranley, citing the Lick Run Greenway and Incline District improvements. "I believe this will spark a West Side renaissance."
A groundbreakinghasn't been set. Both Democrats and Republicans cheered Tuesday's announcement. Hamilton County Commissioner Denise Driehaus, a Democrat from Clifton,
"It’s just huge for this high priority project," said Hamilton County Commissioner Denise Driehaus, a Democrat. "It’s been languishing for years. We finally have the dollars in place to move forward."
State Rep. Bill Seitz, a Republican from Green Township, received the call on Tuesday morning from a SORTA board member that the viaduct will get funded.
"I was delighted," Seitz said. "This is just what the doctor ordered. This is how we drew it up. Like (Bengals quarterback Joe) Burrows' pass to C.J. Uzomah in overtime on Sunday."
Seitz said it wasn't just the sales tax that made the viaduct happen. He also credited the Ohio General Assembly for allowing counties to raise the vehicle license fee $5 for infrastructure projects. This allowed Hamilton County in 2017 to raise an additional $33 million for the project.
"These things don’t happen by accident and don’t happen immediately," Seitz said. "It requires a lot of work to make sure we put building blocks in place."