New Ohio River bridges with 12 additional lanes are expected to cost $4.1 billion and reshape the future not only of Louisville and Southern Indiana but a huge swath of the rest of the country, relieving a major chokepoint in one of the nation’s key north-south corridors.
The Ohio River Bridges Project now being carried forward by a task force of Kentucky and Indiana officials will include a new bridge adjacent to the John F. Kennedy Bridge in downtown Louisville that carries I-65 over the river, an East End I-265 bridge that will connect Prospect, Ky., to Utica, Ind., and a reconfigured Spaghetti Junction interchange where Interstates 64, 65 and 71 collide near downtown.
“That’s a project that is of national significance,” said Stan Lampe, president of Kentuckians for Better Transportation, a 32-year-old transportation advocacy organization based in Louisville. “I-65 runs from Gary, Ind., all the way down to Mobile, Ala., and that chokepoint, that congestion over the Ohio River, doesn’t just affect people in Southern Indiana and Louisville-Jefferson County, Ky. It affects people who live in Gary. It affects people who live in Mobile. And that’s something that a lot of people really don’t quite appreciate.”
And, of course, it affects Kentuckians.
“You don’t restrict the flow of commerce without affecting the health of the state,” said Kentucky Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Dave Adkisson. “An analogy might be the restricted flow of blood through the heart. That restricted flow has consequences and no doubt Kentucky has been held back while that issue has been growing.”
A chief chokepoint cause is that the Kennedy Bridge, built in the early ’60s, was designed for a daily traffic count of 85,000 vehicles but now sees closer to 140,000 vehicles, some 65 percent more than designed. Already well over capacity seven years ago when the bridges project was launched, the forecast is for Kennedy traffic to increase another 42 percent by 2025.
To accommodate its growing traffic load, the Kennedy’s shoulder areas were converted to traffic lanes during the last decade, which made emergency access more difficult. The bridge as currently configured does not meet safety standards, and the Federal Highway Administration considers it structurally deficient – meaning it required maintenance and repair to stay in service, which is fairly common.
“The right people and structure are now in place to move quickly on the Ohio River Bridges Project,” said David W. Nicklies, president of Nicklies Development of Louisville and chairman of the Bridges Coalition, a non-profit organization drawing from Kentucky’s and Indiana’s public and private sectors that advocates for the project. “Then we are on our way to creating 56,000 new jobs through the construction phase alone. When the project is completed, our bridge and highway network can move goods and people safely and efficiently, which is vital for future job growth in the Louisville region and throughout Kentucky.”
Ohio River Bridges Project plans are to convert the Kennedy to six lanes for southbound traffic once a new six-lane downtown bridge is built to carry northbound I-65 traffic. The new East End bridge, also six lanes, will provide another cross-river link, connecting I-265’s Kentucky and Indiana segments for the first time, and diverting traffic and congestion away from downtown.
Better logistics, more jobs
“We have not done anything to improve the cross river mobility in 45 years,” said Joe Reagan, president and CEO of Greater Louisville Inc.-The Metro Chamber of Commerce. “We do not want to have the infrastructure we have carry the burden going forward of a growing area… We are a regional economy that needs to be connected across this river very effectively. It’s the only way that we can continue to be a logistics hub for the world… Second, there are over 56,000 jobs that will be created over the life of the project when we’re able to move forward.”
Reagan believes the chokepoint has had an impact on the ability of the Louisville area to attract new businesses and jobs.
“But more importantly the companies we (already) have are telling us it’s time to fix this,” he said. “Companies that are here have said ‘for us to stay here and to grow, we’ve got to have a great intermodal mobility within the region and to other parts of the country and the world.’”
Reagan is a member of the Louisville-Southern Indiana Bridges Authority, a 14-member panel appointed by Gov. Steve Beshear, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson that began meeting in February to create the plan for financing, building and operating the new bridge system.
Kentucky’s share of the project’s cost is estimated at $2.9 billion and Indiana’s share at $1.1 billion. Originally state and federal tax revenue were set to be used to fund the bridges. But an escalating price tag and multiple delays prompted the two states to consider other funding alternatives. In early March, Indiana’s General Assembly authorized the possible use of a public-private partnership and tolling to fund the project. Kentucky’s General Assembly last year deferred a decision on the use of a private partner to the bi-state authority. Indiana is of course no stranger to transportation public-private partnerships, having leased its Indiana Toll Road to the Australian/Spanish infrastructure firm Macquarie-Cintra for $3.8 billion in 2006.
The Bridges Authority hopes to complete its financing plan for the project by the end of the year. Current plans call for the East End bridge to be open by 2013, the new downtown bridge by 2019, and the reconfigured Spaghetti Junction by 2024. But there remains hope that if new sources of revenue or private partners can be found, those timetables could be sped up and considerable construction costs could be saved.
Other major Kentucky bridge crossings
Outside the important I-65 corridor, there are other mega-project bridges around the state that transportation officials say need to be built and re-built in the coming years to further facilitate mobility and commerce. Those projects are moving forward, too.
“This is the most bridge building we’ve done since the 1930s. We’re going to spend a lot of money on bridgebuilding,” said Keith Todd, Kentucky Transportation Cabinet District One & Two public information officer.
Lampe offered up a list of some of these crucial bridge crossings that are currently being redesigned to meet Kentucky’s – and indeed the nation’s – future needs. Among them:
• The Milton-Madison Bridge – Built in 1929, the bridge, which connects Milton, Ky., to Madison, Indiana along U.S. 421 is set to be replaced. In February, Gov. Beshear announced the project was awarded a $20 million federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. In its current condition, the bridge is too narrow for present-day traffic needs and frequently needs repairs. Superstructure replacement cost is estimated at $131 million, to be split evenly between Kentucky and Indiana. Beshear’s 2010-2016 Highway Plan provides $89.4 million for the project, more than enough for Kentucky’s share of the funding. The project is expected to create or preserve more than 1,400 jobs. Construction is expected to begin this summer with the new bridge open to traffic in 2012.
• U.S. 68 Bridges across Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley – Both built in 1932 before Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake even had been dammed, these bridges also are set for replacement. Construction is slated to begin in 2011 at a cost of $350 million. “Those (current) bridges have 10-foot-wide lanes so commercial trucks can’t pass in opposite directions because their mirrors will hit,” Lampe said. “When you get that done, you’ll have four lanes from Mayfield and beyond on to Bowling Green. [There will be] some major improvements to moving goods and services as a result of that.” Both bridges will take about two years to complete.
• George Rogers Clark Memorial (Ledbetter) Bridge – Originally built in Paducah in 1931 (and not to be confused with a similarly named bridge in Louisville), it’s now too narrow for the 8,500 vehicles that cross the Tennessee River each day between Livingston and McCracken counties on U.S. 60. A new bridge being constructed upstream will be finished this year at an estimated cost of $80 million.
• Brent Spence Bridge – Due to capacity, sight distance and safety concerns associated with its current configuration, this Northern Kentucky bridge built in 1963 is considered functionally obsolete. At an estimated cost of $3 billion, its replacement – sought but not funded – is on the order of cost of the Ohio River Bridges Project, although it is only a single bridge. That one bridge, however, carries both Interstates 71 and 75 across the Ohio River between Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati. Originally designed for 80,000 to 85,000 vehicles a day, the bridge today regularly sees twice that number. “It was designed to be three lanes wide and have shoulders on both sides,” Lampe said. “They took out the shoulders and made it a four-lane bridge, so there’s traffic that goes through with no shoulders.”
New bridges bring economic development
To see what a new bridge can do for a region, consider the experiences of two communities in Kentucky – Maysville and Owensboro – that have each seen recent construction of one of these bridge megaprojects and that are now beginning to reap the rewards.
The William Harsha Bridge, which opened in 2001, connects Maysville with Aberdeen, Ohio, across the Ohio River along U.S. 62. It’s just a few miles downstream from the historic Simon Kenton Bridge, which was constructed in 1931. The construction of the new bridge allowed for the temporary closure of the Kenton Bridge in 2003-2004 as a $5.7 million rehabilitation was completed.
Now with both bridges open, trucks can avoid a circuitous route through downtown Maysville and take the wider, more truck-friendly Harsha Bridge across the river.
“Right now most of the heavy traffic goes to the new bridge, and we’re hoping that our old bridge will last another 75 to 100 years,” said Maysville Mayor David Cartmell.
With the new bridge has come economic development as well, according to the mayor.
“Where the bridge is located within probably two miles from there, we have an industrial park and we’ve had two major plant expansions there since the bridge has been built,” he said.
The William H. Natcher Bridge, opened in 2002, connects Owensboro with Rockport, Ind., along U.S. 231. It’s part of a much larger project that will include a new 22-mile, four-lane stretch of 231 from the bridge north to I-64.
That 22-mile section, built by the state of Indiana, is opening this fall, 10 years later than originally planned.
“That will be a major economic driver for western Kentucky in the future,” said Jody Wassmer, president of the Owensboro Chamber of Commerce. “At the same time, work has begun on a new 2.2-mile extension of the U.S. 60 bypass around Owensboro’s east side. When completed, this will work with the new U.S. 231 north of the Natcher Bridge to create a new, 100-mile four-lane highway between I-64 in southern Indiana and I-65 near Bowling Green. We believe this new interstate corridor connector will bring new growth to the region with increased traffic and related opportunity.”
Kentucky Chamber of Commerce President Adkisson agreed. As Owensboro mayor from 1987 to 1995, he was instrumental in pushing for the bridge.
“The project is still unfolding,” he said. “There are industries that have located because they knew the bridge was going to open in 2002. AK Steel located in southern Indiana across from Owensboro with a promise by Indiana to build a four-lane road to the new bridge.”
The Owensboro-Henderson area is also expected to benefit from the construction of I-69, a seven-state, 2,600-mile corridor sometimes called the NAFTA Superhighway due to its potential to assist in trade with Canada and Mexico. Named one of six “Corridors of the Future” by the U.S. Department of Transportation in 2007, it will require a new Ohio River bridge two miles east of Henderson that is expected to cost $1.4 billion. Although preliminary environmental work ceased in 2004 due to a lack of funding, Kentucky last year started updating portions of the Pennyrile, Western Kentucky and Purchase parkways to become part of the new interstate. Indiana is expected to complete 65 new miles of I-69 between Evansville and Indianapolis in the next two years.
“We believe the progress being made in both Kentucky and Indiana will build momentum for the I-69 bridge to be built sooner than later,” Wassmer said via e-mail from Washington, D.C., where he was lobbying on behalf of the project and other infrastructure spending in March.
Despite all the success that bridge mega-projects promise, analysts point out that every bridge is important to someone, especially if they use it to get to work or to get home on a daily basis. Every bridge is also important to the overall transportation system.
“In the United States, we tend to focus on megaprojects in major urban areas,” Lampe said. “But there are bridge needs in every county and they’re all going to improve commerce and improve public health and safety.”
Kentucky’s Ohio River Bridges
From west to east
Bridge name Road
Most recent repair
Bi-State Vietnam Gold Star
U.S. 41 S
Bi-State Vietnam Gold Star
U.S. 41 N
George Rogers Clark Memorial
John F. Kennedy
Clay Wade Bailey
U.S. 62 1930
Ashland 13th St.
Source: Kentucky Transportation Cabinet