For decades, the Ohio River Bridges Project has been touted as a way to ignite economic development efforts in the Louisville/Southern Indiana region. As the $2.3 billion construction project enters its home stretch, regional business leaders say it has already done just that.
To put it lightly, the project is kind of a big deal. It’s currently one of the nation’s largest transportation projects, and when all 12 additional lanes open to traffic in December, it will be the first time in 50 years that drivers have had a new bridge in Louisville. The two new bridges the project is creating across the Ohio River will double current traffic capacity.
Kentucky is in charge of the Downtown Crossing half, which includes the new Abraham Lincoln Bridge connecting Louisville to Jeffersonville, Ind. Its six northbound lanes run parallel to the existing Kennedy Bridge, which is being redecked and converted to solely southbound traffic. The project is rebuilding downtown approaches in Louisville and Jeffersonville, Ind., and includes a reconfiguration of the notorious Spaghetti Junction – the intersection of interstates 64, 65 and 71 – to streamline one of worst bottlenecks in the country.
Eight miles upstream is the East End Crossing, which connects Prospect, Ky., and Utica, Ind. Overseen by the Indiana Department of Transportation and Indiana Finance Authority, that half of the project includes extending the Gene Snyder Freeway (I-265) in Kentucky to a new six-lane bridge, a 1,700-foot tunnel under the Drumanard Estate in Prospect, and constructing a four-mile, new-terrain highway in Indiana, which will extend the Lee Hamilton Highway (I-265 as well) to the new span.
The end result of the whole will be transformative. The bridges will improve Louisville’s links to surrounding communities in new, more accessible ways; cut commute times nearly in half; alleviate traffic congestion; and improve safety. All of that makes the region even more attractive to companies looking to start or expand operations.
Companies did, in fact, start showing more interest in the region since construction began in July 2013, according to Deana Epperly-Karem, vice president of regional growth for Greater Louisville Inc. GLI provides economic development services for a 15-county region in Kentucky and southern Indiana.
“Companies are telling us that they want this and that this is going to be a new opportunity for an expansion or a new location for their companies,” she said.
Construction start changed perceptions
The start of construction changed the psyche of companies considering moving to the area, said Wendy Dant Chesser, CEO of One Southern Indiana (1si), the Lead Economic Development Organization (LEDO) and Chamber of Commerce for Clark and Floyd counties on the Indiana side of Louisville. Interest definitely picked up once dirt started moving, she said.
“When we sell the region for economic development, companies like things that they can touch, see and feel. Up until a few years ago, when we talked about the bridges, we were selling hype and news stories and governmental commitments, etc.,” she said. “As Matt Hall (1si executive vice president) tells clients all the time, we’re not selling rainbows and unicorns anymore. You can see, you can feel, you can sit in the traffic and experience this with us. This is going to happen; this is going to be real.”
Companies consulting with GLI about the region have said “that they’re excited about what’s coming,” Epperly-Karem said. There will be even more enthusiasm once the bridges open, she said.
“We’re confident that the opening of these bridges will bring more commerce and more people and more opportunity for our entire region,” she said.
GLI is right to expect big things: The project is predicted to generate nearly $87 billion in economic impact and generate more than 15,000 jobs per year over the next 30 years, according to a 2014 economic impact study commissioned by the Indiana Finance Authority. Along with new jobs in communities on both sides of the river, there will be an influx of new residents, and an increase in the demand for business and personal services, as well as retail developments and restaurants.
Southern Indiana primed for growth
A large portion of the job growth associated with the bridges project will likely be at a 6,000-acre business and manufacturing park called River Ridge Commerce Center in Southern Indiana. Located in Jeffersonville on the site of the former Indiana Army Ammunition Plant, River Ridge is only 15 percent occupied but already boasts several large employers.
Amazon has a fulfillment center there that employs about 3,000 workers. There are two auto parts manufacturers located in River Ridge, along with companies that specialize in logistics, health services and airplane propulsion systems, among others. Right now, 7,500 people go to work each day at a business located inside River Ridge, according to 1si.
The development has attracted companies from Germany, France, Switzerland, Japan and Canada.
But River Ridge is just getting started. A new heavy-haul road is being built between the development and the Port of Indiana-Jeffersonville. It will connect Indiana Hwy. 62 to the new Interstate 265 interchange.
“The connector road will be the first exit off of the East End Bridge,” Dant Chesser said. “It’s essentially creating a new front door for River Ridge.”
River Ridge and the Port of Indiana-Jeffersonville stand to realize “significant benefits from the improved access provided by the East End Bridge,” the 2014 economic impact study concluded. The River Ridge Development Authority estimates that the bridge could spur up to 2 million s.f. of development per year because of the improved access to I-265 and I-65, as well as to the Louisville International Airport and UPS Worldport Air Hub in Louisville, the study said.
River Ridge’s success has stimulated an increase in commercial and retail development along Hwy. 62, which used to be mostly rural residential, Dant Chesser said. Companies at River Ridge need services for their businesses and their employees, so there is “a huge rush right now in strip centers and banks,” she said.
And the snowball effect continues. The increase in services and retailers in the area is attracting more residential growth.
“It’s all starting to create more diversified development than what was originally planned,” Dant Chesser said.
Southern Indiana is projected to gain more than 11,000 direct new jobs and some 6,000 new residents because of the bridges project.
Louisville feeling the impact already
Louisvillians have already experienced the impact of the project in the form of traffic delays while the bridges are being constructed. Drivers have been extremely patient, Epperly-Karem said, and the planners have done a great job with keeping traffic moving.
The hassle of traffic delays is temporary, but the project’s impact on economic development and quality of life will be long-term – and positive, she said.
“Drive times are significantly going to decrease. Industries are telling us that. UPS and companies that are looking at the area see that the commuting patterns for getting their products from one side of the river to the other is going to be cut in half. Workers who are going back and forth across the river will also see a decrease in drive times,” she said.
“Here at GLI, we have three projects in the pipeline today that are looking at both sides of the river,” Epperly-Karem said. Those companies, whose names are kept confidential until decisions are made, are in the logistics and manufacturing industries.
New commercial and industrial development will likely be focused around RiverPort – an industrial park with a port facility located in the western part of Jefferson County – and the Louisville International Airport, where UPS WorldPort is located, according to the economic impact study. Retail development will likely take place in the eastern part of the county.
Becoming more than a ‘bedroom’ community
The bridges project will result in much more than an easier commute for people who already live and work in Louisville. Entire new commuting patterns are being established, providing greater access to communities like Oldham and Bullitt counties.
Often considered a “bedroom community” to Louisville, one of Oldham County’s biggest challenges has been that 80.4 percent of its working-age population leaves the county during the day to go to work. That makes it more difficult for smaller businesses – such as dentists, chiropractors, retailers and restaurants – to operate successfully, said David Bizianes, executive director of Oldham County Chamber and Economic Development.
Oldham County has one of the highest-rated school districts in the state and boasts a highly educated workforce: over 50 percent of residents have at least an associate’s degree, and more than 40 percent have earned at least a bachelor’s degree.
“We also have the healthiest population,” Bizianes said.
What the county doesn’t have is enough jobs to keep their residents at home during the day. The bridges project may help change that.
The East End Crossing will connect the east end of Louisville to southern Indiana. This will provide an alternate route across the river that bypasses the urban traffic of downtown Louisville. It also opens up access to Prospect and La Grange in Oldham County.
In conjunction with the bridges project, I-71 is being widened from four to six lanes between the Gene Snyder Freeway (I-265) in Jefferson County and KY 329 in Oldham County. This will make the commute to and from Oldham County easier, Bizianes said.
The community is likely to attract some industrial development, as well as smaller-scale retail and high-end office uses, the economic impact study concluded. Much of that may take place at Oldham Reserve, a 1,000-acre mixed-use development located off of I-71 in La Grange. It is publicly owned and governed by a board comprised of city and county representatives.
Last year, a new overpass was constructed across I-71, creating a new south gateway entrance into the development. A new two-mile roadway through Oldham Reserve also is being constructed. It will tie together separate north and south ends of the campus, creating full internal access.
“When that road is finished, we’re going to really see a lot more movement in people’s interest in Oldham County,” Bizianes said.
Oldham Reserve is home to the county’s largest employer, The Rawlings Group, an insurance subrogation company. It is also zoned for high-end office, commercial, retail, and residential use.
Bizianes is currently in confidential conversations with several companies, ranging from healthcare to software to information technology.
“We’ve really gotten a lot of activity and we’re excited about where things are headed,” he said.
While the city and county leadership are interested in all types of businesses, they are most interested in attracting jobs that will entice its educated population to stay in Oldham County instead of commuting elsewhere.
“Our leadership is very focused on trying to maintain the high quality of life that we’ve grown accustomed to here,” Bizianes said.
With an easier commute to and from Oldham County and its sought-after school district, residential growth is likely, too. The economic impact study predicted that the community will see considerable high-end housing development, which will result in added retail and services to support the new population.
Parents wanting their children to attend school there has always driven residential growth, but “now that it is going to be easier to access Oldham County and get back and forth, if they have to work in Jefferson County, it’s going to make it a lot easier of a decision to locate here.”
Bullitt’s explosive growth to continue
Since 2003, there has been an explosion of development along the I-65 corridor in Bullitt County. There have been 79 new location and expansion announcements since 2003, resulting in more than 7,000 new jobs and an investment of more than $600 million in the community. That includes fulfillment and distribution centers for big-name companies like Zappos, TSI/Ebay, Linens N Things, Johnson & Johnson, Best Buy and others, as well as numerous manufacturers, warehouses and business services companies.
The completion of the Ohio River Bridges Project will likely help that trend continue, Epperly-Karem said.
Industrial and business parks in Bullitt County will likely continue to attract distribution and light manufacturing firms that can take advantage of the sites’ proximities to I-65, UPS WorldPort and two metropolitan areas (Louisville and Elizabethtown), the economic impact study concluded.
John Snider, executive director of the Bullitt County Economic Development Authority, is more cautious in his expectations for growth as a result of the bridges project.
“The overall impact may not be seen for several years and it will be driven by the cost of tolls, traffic flow, employee traffic patterns and destination of final product,” he said. “These issues may take shape in the thought process of industry as well as employment recruitment.”
Companies will face questions such as, “How many times will my trucks need to cross the bridge each day?” and “Can I recruit employees from the other side of the river with toll costs as well as delays of traffic?” Snider said.
A bit skeptical, but still optimistic, he concluded: “Both sides of the river are very hot today, and we hope this market continues to grow,” he said. n
Lorie Hailey is a correspondent for The Lane Report. She can be reached at [email protected].