One bridge down, two to go: A look at progress made in the $2.3B Ohio River Bridges Project

12/22/2015 01:03 PM

Progress on the East End bridge is hard to miss as you travel along the Ohio River in eastern Jefferson County or Clark County, Ind.

Concrete towers ascend from the depths of the Ohio, and steel support structures are ready to connect the Indiana and Kentucky approaches as an extension of the Gene Snyder Freeway near Prospect and Utica, Ind.

“The back spans are currently under construction – the pieces that will connect from the Indiana approach and the Kentucky approach to the towers,” said Ron Heustis, senior project manager for the Indiana Department of Transportation, which is responsible for the $1.1 billion East End Crossing, half of the $2.3 billion Ohio River Bridges Project.

“On the Kentucky side, that back span is completed. On the Indiana side, that superstructure is being built on land and then pushed out through a series of launchings to the Indiana-side tower.”

The bridge, which is scheduled to be complete by next December, is expected to improve traffic flow between Jefferson County near Prospect to Utica, which will help workers avoid congestion in downtown Louisville as they drive to work at places like Amazon and River Ridge in nearby Jeffersonville.

Work includes new seventeen-hundred foot tunnels below U.S. 42 near Prospect, a new interchange at Old Salem Road in Indiana, a new bridge at Harrods Creek in Kentucky, and improvements at the interchange of state route 265 and state route 62 in Indiana.

As a whole, a study by Economic Development Research Group expects big things for the region’s economy thanks to the Ohio River Bridges Project

“That is predicting up to $87 billion worth of economic development over a 30-year period in the Louisville metropolitan area, and that includes probably $29 billion in increased salaries, wages in that time period,” Heustis said. “Lots of new jobs, lots of new opportunities for development.”

The newly opened Abraham Lincoln Bridge, an integral part of the $1.3 billion Downtown Crossing project, is now carrying traffic traveling north and south on Interstate 65 as the John F. Kennedy Memorial Bridge gets some much needed repairs.

Once the project is complete next year, northbound I-65 traffic will take the Lincoln bridge while southbound drivers will travel on the Kennedy.

“We accelerated the construction at the Abraham Lincoln Bridge in order to get more time on the Kennedy bridge without changing our end date,” said Andy Barber, assistant state highway engineer with the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet. “So that allows us to get more time taking care of the Kennedy bridge and doing some more improvements there that are going to let that bridge last another 35 years.”

Another benefit of the project, Barber says, will be the reconfiguration of Spaghetti Junction in downtown Louisville at the intersection of Interstates 64, 65 and 71.

“What we’re doing with the interchange specifically is addressing weaves and merges that in the existing condition, or prior to construction, were really hampering traffic getting through,” he said. “There’s a study that showed we had about two accidents per day in the interchange, not necessarily major accidents, but because you have no shoulders, you have no other redundancy, you have a little fender-bender there or you have a stopped vehicle, it blocks everything up, and that ripples through the city.

“So what this project’s going to do is fix some of that stuff – provide full shoulders, address some of the weaves and merges, get rid of some of them, and then provide additional capacity across the river going from four lanes northbound, three lanes southbound to six lanes northbound, six lanes southbound.”

Paying for the project hasn’t been without some controversy, with both Kentucky and Indiana collecting tolls as part of their financing plans.

Kentucky, which is responsible for the downtown crossing, sold about two hundred and seventy-five million in toll revenue bonds with Indiana, which is handling the East End crossing in a public-private partnership with WVB East End Partners, plans to charge tolls to repay its partner in the joint venture.

“Initial toll rates will range from $1 to $12, and it truly depends on classification of the vehicle, how often the person is crossing the tolled bridge and whether or not they have a transponder in place,” said Mindy Peterson, RiverLink spokeswoman. “So those are the variables that will affect cost.”

Peterson says the least expensive tolling option will include the use of prepaid accounts and transponders – either a free one for local RiverLink use or an EZPass for use on the EZPass tolling system in other states, which will cost about $15.

Here’s how tolling is expected to be calculated:

With a transponder: $1 for frequent, non-commercial traffic (Peterson says the number of trips necessary for consideration as a frequent traveler have not been determined); $2 for a passenger vehicle; $5 for a medium truck; and $10 for a heavy truck.

No transponder but license plate registered to prepaid account: $3 for a passenger vehicle; $6 for a medium truck and $11 for a heavy truck.

Unregistered license plate: $4 for a passenger vehicle; $7 for a medium truck and $12 for a heavy truck.

Those who don’t want to pay tolls can take the Clark Memorial and Sherman Minton bridges.

For Barber and Heustis, the Ohio River Bridges Project is a once in a lifetime undertaking and represents the largest infrastructure projects ever completed by Kentucky and Indiana.

“This is one of the projects that doesn’t come around too often, not only for its size,” Barber said. “… (The Downtown Crossing is) the largest thing KYTC’s taken on by a factor of ten at the time that we let it. The project as a whole, $2.3 billion project, is one of the largest projects in the nation, and to see Kentucky and Indiana both jointly delivering these crossing about the same time, to be on budget and schedule when we’re at 75 to 80 percent complete of the project is very impressive.”

Said Heustis: “One thing I always say about this, this is not an end-all-type project. This is a backbone that’s going to provide the opportunity for economic development and infrastructure development well into the future.

“Decisions that are made 20 years from now about how to modify and improve additional resources around here, this is the backbone that’s providing the opportunity for all that.”

Kevin Wheatley

Kevin Wheatley is a reporter for Pure Politics. He joined cn|2 in September 2014 after five years at The State Journal in Frankfort, where he covered Kentucky government and politics. You can reach him at kevin.wheatley@charter.com or 502-792-1135 and follow him on Twitter at @KWheatley_cn2.

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