Engineers find 'more issues' on bridge, officials urge patience


by Joe Arnold

Posted on September 16, 2011 at 2:11 PM

Updated Saturday, Oct 26 at 6:36 PM

Do you think the traffic plan with the closure of the Sherman Minton Bridge is going well?

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WHAS11) -- After a private tour of the closed Sherman Minton Bridge, area elected leaders pledged federal support for repairs and urged patience as engineers begin the second week of a three week assessment of the I-64 span over the Ohio River.

"I don't know if they've found any more cracks," said U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Kentucky 3rd District), "what they have found are some other issues as they have uncovered some of these support systems and they are carefully studying those.  Those may not be serious issues and they may be.  But they found some other questions."

Yarmuth said there is no question that it would be "at least a few months" before the bridge is back in service.

No one else from the briefing would offer any timeline or characterization of what inspectors have discovered after a full week on the bridge.

"Don't you think it's safer.. it's safer to wait until we get an overall assessment rather than sort of - 'what did we find today?,'" said U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky).

"We really don't want to give people a false impression of what we know right now," said U.S. Rep. Todd Young (R-Indiana 9th District), "We're still learning a whole lot and it's very difficult to draw any kind of conclusions."

Young echoed one engineer's assertion that releasing any public estimates now would be "reckless."

"It is incredibly complex," said Kentucky Transporation Cabinet Secretary Mike Hancock, "And I assure you we have the 'A' team on this."

"It's moving as fast as it can," added Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer (D), "I know that's frustrating for people to hear, but we don't want anybody to be hurt here."

On Tuesday, Indiana transportation officials released a photograph of the crack on the bridge that prompted the emergency closure.  But since then, they have offered no other update on what they have found.

The lawmakers say they are thinking about how the federal government can help pay for a solution, yet would not say how much it might cost.

"I just don't want to give you a piecemeal estimate today," McConnell said, "I'm not going to engage in speculation, but I can tell you for sure that all of us are going to be working together on a bipartisan basis."

"The federal government collects the federal gas tax and it comes down to the states for the most part to determine how to spend it," McConnell explained, "However, when you have an emergency sometimes we end up playing a more definitive role."

McConnell added that, from a funding perspective, the timing is "pretty good" because Congress is due to vote on an extension of the federal highway bill in January by which time Indiana and Kentucky should have determined the fate of the Sherman Minton Bridge.

"What we're doing is exploring all options," added Young "all options that might exist so when states ask for federal help, we'll have a menu of options."

Though the officials are not ruling out having to replace the bridge, their comments Saturday pointed toward repairing it.

"Our goal as a team is to get this bridge back open," Hancock said.

As a broad band of potential outcomes narrows, so will the possible strategies, said Jose Sepulveda, a Kentucky-based Federal Highway Administration official.

"We don't know what those are," Sepulveda continued, "but it's our hope that within a few weeks we get a better picture of what is going to be required to repair the bridge and open it back to the public."

The congressional delegation agreed that the federal government should contribute.

President Barack Obama plans a trip to a Cincinnati - Northern Kentucky Bridge this Thursday to push for his jobs plan and infrastructure spending.

"I don't want to get into an assessment of the president's most recent stimulus suggestion," McConnell said, "We'll be assessing that and taking a look at it.  I don't rule all of it out or all of it, in. what I can tell you is that the issue of roads and bridges are not partisan in Washington.

Asked if the President is coming to the wrong bridge, Yarmuth paused.

"In my opinion, yes," Yarmuth responded, "We've reached out to the President. suggested that he come here both directly and through (U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray) Lahood, so maybe next Thursday he'll make a detour.  We hope so."

Meanwhile, Yarmuth said he spoke to Humana co-founder David Jones on Friday regarding Jones' push for the immediate commencement of construction of the long-delayed east end bridge.

On Thursday, Jones offered a $10 million loan to the Ohio River Bridges Project to kick start the project, saying that the Sherman Minton Bridge closure could be "catastrophic" to the local economy.

The elected leaders said the Ohio River Bridges Project is a separate issue from the Sherman Minton closure, yet could draw from the same funding.

"If replacement is the only option here, funding for that replacement would be in competition with the Ohio River Bridges Project," Yarmuth said.

Yarmuth and Fischer said the project is moving more rapidly than in the past and they expect construction to begin on an east end bridge by Fall, 2012.