LOUISVILLE, Ky (WHAS11) -- The sudden momentum of the decades-in-the-making Ohio River Bridges Project continued on Wednesday, clearing a critical hurdle with the required approval of the federal government.
"It's an exciting day," project manager Gary Valentine of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet said to WHAS11 shortly after the announcement. "We have major steps. Three major documents were approved today by the Federal Highway Administration."
Kentucky and Indiana transportation officials announced the approval Wednesday afternoon. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) approved the financing, management and tolling plans for the two-bridge project, which will also overhaul the tangled interstate "Spaghetti Junction" in downtown Louisville.
Both states have been moving forward with initial construction plans under the assumption of eventual federal approval. A lawsuit pending in federal court filed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and River Fields appears to be the final hurdle for the long-discussed project.
Though a hearing in the suit is set for Friday, each state plans to issue the final Request for Proposals this week, which will ask the competing bridge and road-building teams to provide their plans and bids for constructing the project. The states expect to award those bids by the end of the year.
Indiana is responsible for the east end half of the project which includes a bridge between Prospect, Ky. and Utica, Ind. and a tunnel under part of the Drumanard Estate in eastern Jefferson County.
Kentucky is responsible for the downtown half of the project, which includes a new bridge to carry I-65 Northbound traffic from Louisville to Jeffersonville, Ind., converting the Kennedy Bridge to Southbound traffic only and improving the Kennedy Interchange, where Interstates 64, 65 and 71 meet in downtown Louisville.
Each half of the project is estimated to cost about $1.3 billion. Kentucky and Indiana will award a tolling contract to one company that will collect tolls on all three bridges and split the proceeds equally between the two states. Even after the bridges are paid for, the financial plan calls for tolls to still be collected for future bridge needs.
Drivers will not stop to pay tolls, instead traffic will flow freely and tolls will be collected electronically, no toll booths.
Drivers will have two ways to pay:
- Install a transponder that will debit a pre-paid account.
- Cameras will capture the license plates of vehicles without transponders. The toll will come in the mail.
Expected toll rates with transponders are:
- $10 tractor-trailers
- $5 panel trucks
- $2 passenger vehicle
- $1 frequent passenger vehicles
"That's based on today," Valentine said. "It will evolve through the process, through.. we don't know what the final bids will be. We expect they'll be lower, the bids that come in this fall. The financing costs depend on market conditions at this point in time. So, actual toll rates, there may be more than those four we talked about."
The plan calls for tolls on all three bridges to begin as soon as the first new crossing is completed. The East End Crossing is slated to open in 2017 and the Downtown Crossing in 2018. Valentine, however, said actual completion dates will probably be sooner.
A news release from both states explained the documents approved by the federal government:
· A Project Management Plan, which FHWA requires for “major projects” such as the Bridges Project. This plan defines the structure and processes that will ensure control of the scope, budget, schedule and quality of the project. It also outlines approaches to contract management, reporting, quality assurance, safety, traffic management, communications and other essential project elements.
· An Initial Financial Plan—also required under FHWA “major projects” guidance—which outlines expected project costs, funding sources and financing mechanisms and describes the financial responsibilities of the two states in delivering the project.
· A Tolling Agreement among the FHWA and the states’ transportation agencies and financing agencies, which authorizes tolling and outlines certain requirements that Kentucky and Indiana will need to meet in using tolls to help pay for the new and improved river crossings.