LOUISVILLE, Ky (WHAS11) -- After decades with little progress on the plan to build two new Ohio River bridges in Louisville, the project continued its sudden roll on Wednesday as the Federal Highway Administration approved a downsized plan developed 17 months ago.
City and state officials said the federal approval lays the groundwork for a number of federal clearances and clears a path for planned construction of both an east end crossing and a downtown span.
The new federal approval was required after Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels agreed to reduce the project’s estimated cost from $4.1 billion to $2.6 billion by downsizing planned changes to Spaghetti Junction and making other changes to the bridges' specifications.
"After 40 years of debate, after 40 years of talk, after 40 years of discussion, we are finally going to build these bridges," said Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer at a noon news conference, two hours after he said the federal government approved the plan.
The changes also assign the downtown portion of the project to Kentucky and the east end crossing and approaches to Indiana.
Indiana breaks ground on an interchange in August. And Kentucky says it's not that far behind.
"We'll be able to award a contract by the end of this year," said Gary Valentine with the Kentucky Transporation Cabinet.
It's a key hurdle but not the last step.
A federal lawsuit filed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and River Fields of Louisville is still pending. Yet the state and city say they are confident the project will prevail.
"We are not particularly concerned given where we are at this point," said Steve Schultz, the newly appointed special advisor to the Indiana portion of the project. Schultz resigned as Executive Director of the Ohio River Bridges Authority on Tuesday to accept the new post.
"It's been my long standing practice not to comment on pending litigation," Schultz continued, "but I will say that I hope for the sake of this project and for the sake of those who have been waiting so long for it to happen that it comes to a speedy resolution."
"I think the strongest statement is the federal government took that into consideration with this record of decision that came forth," said Fischer of the lawsuit. "They clearly feel that there is no standing there as well."
Another hurdle the project must clear is additional federal approval of tolling of three Louisville bridges, the east end bridge, the new downtown bridge and the existing Kennedy Bridge.
"We've had positive discussions with them about this," Valentine said. "We actually have a draft of the toll agreement in place with them."
Fischer said it is too late for tolling opponents to affect any changes to the plan.
"It is obviously past that point," Fischer said. "The reality is, is that this project has to be paid for."
"Federal government funds are low. Local and state funds are stretched as well, so this project will be paid for by people who are using it," Fischer added.
With construction slated to begin in downtown Louisville in early 2013, Kentucky transportation officials say it is imperative for them to effectively communicate the traffic impact which will be a new reality for some five years of construction.
"There will be impact," Valentine said. "And there will be impact until construction is completed. I don't want to paint a rosy pictures there will be impact."
Valentine said that Kentucky is establishing "a floor" that the contractor has to maintain traffic, at all times at least two lanes of interstate traffic open in each direction.
"There will be some ramp closures things like that," Valentine continued. "But there will be pain."
And that traffic pain will last for five years. The bridges project is due to be complete in 2018.
The $2.6 billion price tag, however, could become less painful as contractors bid to win the lucractive contracts.
"I'm pretty optimistic it can even come in under what we've anticipated," Valentine said.
Pressed for an estimate, Valentine acknowledged the project could cost "a few percentage points under what we've anticipated."
A few percentage points would add up. Three percent of $2.6 Billion is $78 million in further savings.
Valentine also disclosed that Kentucky construction would likely begin in 2013 in the Ohio River, to construct bridge piers.
"Because it has no utilities in the way and it has no right of way in the way," Valentine said.
State officials estimate the six-year project – one of the largest in the nation – will support more than 4,000 construction, engineering and supply-related jobs.
“After decades of discussion and debate, the Ohio River Bridges Project is about to become a reality,” Beshear said in a statement. “Through determination and partnership, Kentucky and Indiana have overcome the challenges and cleared the path for a safer, better transportation system for the two-state region.”
Daniels called the decision “another important step for the two states on this long awaited project.”
“We’re eager to break ground and move ahead with construction, but more importantly, this is about convenience, safety, jobs and unlocking greater economic potential in southeastern Indiana,” Daniels said in a news release.
FHWA Kentucky Division Administrator Jose Sepulveda called the Modified Selected Alternative “the only financially feasible alternative that will meet the purpose and need for the action.”
The downsizing of the project is the result of a December, 2010 Indianapolis meeting between the two governor's and then mayor-elect Fischer, who pledged during his campaign that bridge construction would begin by the end of his first term in office.
I was able to reemphasize the voice from our community they had been hearing as well on - it costs too much and we need to figure out how to get it reduced," Fischer said.
The mayor admonished critics who have called for the east end bridge to be built first, then the need for a downtown bridge be re-evaluated.
"It'ss not going to happen," Fischer said. "This is one project, two bridges. That's what the federal government approved and that's how the project is going to proceed."
“The Modified Selected Alternative incorporates extensive measures to avoid, minimize, and mitigate impacts to the natural and human environment,” the report said.
"This final step in the environmental review process allows Kentucky and Indiana to begin the process of improving safety and easing congestion for thousands of people who travel across the Ohio River every day,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in the release. “This project will put people to work and help improve our infrastructure – a win-win for these two states.”
Information below provided by Kentucky Governor's Office:
The FHWA reaffirmed the original “purpose and need” of the project from the 2003 Record of Decision, which includes:
• Improving cross-river mobility in the Louisville-Southern Indiana region;
• Increasing mobility to serve economic growth throughout the growing region;
• Reducing congestion on the Kennedy Bridge and in the downtown interchange;
• Increasing safety and reducing accidents on the Kennedy Bridge and in the downtown interchange;
• Providing better transportation linkage and rerouting options in the eastern part of the region; and
• Addressing local transportation plans.
The Supplemental Final Environmental Impact Statement (SFEIS) and a new Record of Decision were required because of the proposed cost-saving changes and the decision to use toll revenues from the new and improved facilities to help pay for the estimated $2.6 billion project.
The SEIS process included extensive public involvement, re-examination of environmental impacts and in-depth analysis of changes in the project area since the 2003 decision. The revised ROD and the SFEIS are available for viewing on the project’s website, www.kyinbridges.com.
Procurement processes on track for Downtown, East End crossings
The federal approval helps ensure the procurement processes for both the Downtown and East End crossings remain on schedule, according to officials with the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet and the Indiana Department of Transportation.
Under a Memorandum of Understanding signed by Daniels and Beshear, Kentucky is taking the lead on financing and construction of the Downtown Crossing and Indiana is responsible for financing and construction of the East End Crossing.
Both states plan to award contracts for their respective crossings before year’s end, and an August groundbreaking is expected for the first element of the massive project – a $5.5 million road extension that will ultimately connect the River Ridge Commerce Center to State Road 265 and the future East End Bridge. Construction on the main crossings will begin in earnest in early 2013.