(This is part of a regular series especially for the NKyTribune on local history by three distinguished historians, Paul Tenkotte of NKU, James Claypool, NKU professor emeritus of history, and David Schroeder of Kenton County Public Library. They are co-authors of the new “Gateway City,” a 450-page history of Covington, marking its 200th birthday.)
By Paul A. Tenkotte
Special to NKyTribune
You’re sitting in morning commuter traffic on I-71/75 North, crawling in from the Northern Kentucky suburbs. There’s an accident on the Brent Spence Bridge, and traffic is tied up to Florence. You have an important client meeting this morning, but past experience fortunately helped you plan for delays like this. Wisely, you set your alarm an hour early, tuned to the local news stations, and have your cell phone traffic app up and running. Still, you’re frustrated. Your restless thoughts are being batted about like a ping-pong ball.
First, you hope and pray that no one is hurt in the accident on the bridge. Then, you wish that your U.S. Congressmen could be passengers in your car—right now. You imagine how you would give them a bit of unsolicited taxpayer advice concerning our nation’s crumbling and “functionally obsolete” infrastructure, reminding them that they’re comfortably ensconced in a capitol building with its own subway system and in a federal District of Columbia with a too-die-for Metro system. Finally, you wonder—who in bloody blazes designed this train wreck of an expressway in the first place?
So, here’s the historical record:
In the 1940s, leaders on both sides of the Ohio River began planning for a system of local limited-access roads, or expressways. By 1949, Northern Kentucky leaders dreamed of a modern road to tie the new Greater Cincinnati Airport in Boone County to Covington. This Covington-to-Florence access road was meant to ease traffic on the section of the Dixie Highway (US 25/42) between those two cities, then the second-heaviest travelled corridor in Kentucky.
Meanwhile, in Cincinnati, planners were hoping to build essentially three regional expressways: 1) a “Millcreek Expressway” (now I-75) to ease traffic on US 25; 2) A “Northeast Expressway” (currently, I-71) to ease traffic on U.S. 42, and 3) a “Third Street Distributor” (now Ft. Washington Way) connecting the two aforementioned expressways. The 1948 Cincinnati City Plan even suggested that traffic from the Distributor be carried over the Suspension Bridge to Covington. “Seriously?” you ask. What in the world were they thinking?
Let’s be fair, though, to those progressive leaders—for that is what they were—and put it all in historical context. These planned expressways, on both sides of the Ohio River, were meant to be local limited-access roads, nothing more. They were designed to make traffic flows on US 25 and 42, within the urban footprint of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, more conducive to the growing number of automobiles.
Further, there was nothing at all approximating today’s urban sprawl back then. Conversely, the old river cities of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky were still where most of our region’s metropolitan population lived. In 1950, for example, 56 percent of the residents of our metropolitan area lived in Cincinnati and 13 percent in Covington, Newport, Bellevue, Dayton, and Ludlow. No one could have imagined that the mass exodus to suburbia would soon become the nation’s largest migration. Ironically, in fact, the next step in this process—a national interstate expressway system—helped to precipitate explosive suburban growth.
U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower (president, 1953-61), a decorated military hero, supported an interstate expressway system, which could also be used to convoy troops and equipment during the event of a national emergency. After all, it was the Cold War, and worries of a possible confrontation between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. made nearly everyone anxious.
In 1954, the US Congress passed the Federal Aid Highway Act, providing for a 60 percent federal contribution to the building of major roads. In February 1955, Covington’s city commission approved the route of the proposed $8 million Covington-to-Florence access highway through their city.
The highway would be elevated throughout the flood-prone area of the Willow Run, a creek running through an area of ballfields and a dump, and would cut through a major hill (what became known as “Death Hill,” for all of its subsequent accidents). In August 1955, Kenton County voters approved a $1 million bond issue to begin purchase of the right-of-way for the access route, with the understanding that the highway would be built through a 60 percent federal contribution, a 30 percent state match, and the remaining 10 percent by the county.
But, in 1956 with the passage of the Interstate Highway Act, the federal contribution became more generous, raised from a 60 percent match to a 90 percent one. So began the largest public works building project that the world had ever seen—the U.S. expressway system. Subsequently, the Covington-to-Florence access highway evolved into a larger national expressway plan, and became Interstates 75/71, essentially following the original access road route and designed to replace the obsolete U.S. 25/42. The expressway opened from Covington to Florence in September 1962, and the Brent Spence Bridge opened in November 1963.
Subsequently, the Kentucky Department of Highways has updated the expressway, as best as the old footprint allowed, by adding lanes, vastly improving Death Hill, and improving traffic flow on the bridge itself.
So, next time you’re caught in gridlock on I-75, remember this:
It might not help you feel any better, but it will make you feel smarter. You’re traveling—or crawling perhaps—on a 1940s/1950s designed expressway that morphed from a local limited-access highway to a combined local highway/national expressway system carrying two major Interstate routes (I-75 and I-71). It was never designed to carry the volume of traffic that it ironically helped to create. So, now we have the opportunity to fix the problems and to update the expressway for the 21st century, or at least until we’re all flying to work in Jetsons’-style.
Paul A. Tenkotte is Professor of History and Director of the Center for Public History at NKU. With other well-known regional historians, James C. Claypool and David E. Schroeder, he is a co-editor of the new 450-page Gateway City: Covington, Kentucky, 1815-2015, now available at your local booksellers, the Center for Great Neighborhoods in Covington and online sellers.
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