The Ohio River Bridges Project, consisting of two new Ohio River crossings and a reconstructed Spaghetti Junction, has been in the planning process for nearly a decade. The project includes,
- The Downtown Bridge, a planned Interstate 65 northbound-only span connecting Louisville, Kentucky to Jeffersonville, Indiana spanning the Ohio River as part of the Ohio River Bridges Project. Once complete, the existing Kennedy Bridge will be re-designated for Interstate 65 south.
- The East End Bridge, a proposed highway crossing over the Ohio River northeast of Louisville, Kentucky. The bridge would connect the Gene Snyder Freeway/Kentucky State Route 841 in Kentucky to the Lee Hamilton Highway/Indiana State Route 265 in Indiana, and be designated as Interstate 265 once the freeway is completed. The proposal also features a tunnel under the historic Drumanard Estate, a reconstructed Indiana State Route 62 diverging diamond interchange, and a reconfigured U.S. Route 42 interchange.
- A reconstructed Spaghetti Junction interchange, which consists of ramps for Interstates 64, 65 and 71 in the Butchertown district of Louisville.
Design work has been progressing since July 26, 2002, when the governors of Kentucky and Indiana announced plans for the completion of Interstate 265, connecting the two disjointed highways that has been a dream since the 1960s when the first regional bypass was proposed. The original estimated cost of the entire Ohio River Bridges Project was $2.5 billion and the development would be the largest transportation project ever constructed between the two states. Due to the sheer cost and size, it was considered a mega-project.
But fast forward to 2011, and the only development has been the reconstruction of the U.S. Route 42 interchange in Kentucky, and the test bores for the Drumanard Estate tunnel. By 2007, the project’s price plan had risen to $4.1 billion. The financial plan was modified so that Kentucky’s $2.9 billion share be covered through federal and state monies, and through tolls. Indiana’s $1.1 billion share would be covered through proceeds from the leasing of the Indiana Toll Road. Tolling of the bridges will shave 16 years from the construction schedule and has the support of numerous coalitions and state leaders. Tolls would be collected via an open-road, high-speed tolling system, where no physical tollbooths are located and where a system such as EZ-Pass is used. The electronic transponder, which is tagged to a debit or credit card, would automatically deduct money when an EZ-Pass-enabled toll collection system is passed through. Under a toll plan, work would start as early as 2008 and be complete by 2024. The East End Bridge would open by 2014, and a southbound Interstate 65 bridge would be open by 2020. A redesigned Kennedy Interchange would be complete by 2024.
In late 2009, the Kentuckiana Regional Planning and Development Agency (KRPDA) did not renew the Louisville region’s long-range transportation plan when it expired, because it had no source of funding for the Ohio River Bridges Project. Because the funding source was a federal requirement, the government gave KRPDA one year to complete the plan. But to do that, KRPDA noted that it would need a bi-state authority to produce a financing strategy for the project.
The year of 2010 was that of staged protests by numerous opposition groups – both to the tolling of the bridges and of the construction of the bridges. The Say No to Bridge Tolls group requested to the Kentucky Heritage Group that the historic Drumanard estate be de-listed from the federal National Register of Historic Places, to “save taxpayers the cost of constructing a tunnel under the property.” The estate, listed in 1983, was “not architecturally or historically significant,” according to the group. This was opposed by numerous historic preservation organizations.
Financing was a major issue for the project. The idea of tolling all river crossings in the Louisville region, including the Interstate 64 Sherman Minton Bridge and the U.S. Route 31 Clark Memorial Bridge, was discussed. A report, to satisfy the KRPDA requirement, was sent to the Federal Highway Administration. In it, the report assumed that tolls would pay for more than half of the Ohio River Bridges Project. Two agencies, the the Louisville and Southern Indiana Bridges Authority, and the Kentucky Public Transportation Infrastructure Authority, voted unanimous to endorse a July 9, 2010 plan to use high-speed, electronic tolling methods to raise $2.2 billion of the project’s cost. The other half of the cost would come from conventional funding, such as fuel taxes. The plan was based on a one-way trip cost of $3.
In a meeting on December 21, Kentucky Governor Beshear, Indiana Governor Daniels and newly-elected Louisville Mayor Daniels decided upon three major modifications to the Ohio River Bridges project to save $500 million, which could potentially reduce tolls and speed up construction. The decision was the result of months of discussions over how to reduce costs, partially in response to public concerns over the toll proposals.
The modifications include rebuilding the Spaghetti Junction interchange in its current location instead of shifting it south into Butchertown, reducing the number of lanes on the East End Bridge to four total, and shift a pedestrian/bike path on the Downtown Bridge to the adjacent pedestrian-only Big Four Bridge. The bike path on the Downtown Bridge would cost $50 million, versus the conversion of the Big Four, which would cost $10 million to complete the bridge decking.20 The current fiscal year 2011 Kentucky highway budget has marked $12 million to redeck the Big Four, but no money has been allocated to connect the Big Four to the Indiana shore.
In addition, the group announced on January 4, 2011 that tolls would only be sought on the East End Bridge and the Downtown Bridge, not on any other crossing, due to the cost reductions. The cost savings would drop the price of the entire project to $3.6 billion.
Construction on the project could begin in earnest by August 2012 if no other major hiccups are encountered.