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September 17, 2011

Officials get up close look at Sherman Minton Bridge

Still too early to predict how long bridge will be closed

LOUISVILLE — A cadre of state, local and federal officials — both Republicans and Democrats represented — got an up-close look at the Sherman Minton Bridge Saturday, agreeing on at least one thing: There’s still no telling how long it’s going to be closed.

They did, however, pledge that partisan debate in Washington, D.C., regarding infrastructure spending, would not hamstring its repair.

Indiana Rep. Todd Young was joined by Kentucky Rep. John Yarmuth, Sen. Mitch McConnell and  Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer for the tour.

The bridge, which connects New Albany to Louisville over the Ohio River, has been shut down for more than a week after inspectors discovered a critical crack in a tension tie that previously could not be seen through visual inspection.

When there’s an emergency, the federal government can play a more definitive role, McConnell told reporters at a press conference that followed the tour. He said the timing was good because by the time further debate about the funding comes up, leaders will have a better idea of what the project requires.

“Roads and bridges are not a partisan issue,” he said.

McConnell noted that the U.S. Senate on Thursday passed a five-month extension of federal highway funding legislation. Young commended cross state commuters on their good humor and patience as the process goes forward.

Right now, engineers are still diagnosing what the problems are and figuring out how they can be fixed, the officials said. It’ll probably be another two weeks before that’s known. They declined to speculate on what they saw on the tour.

“It’s a complicated process,” said Yarmuth. “They got a hundred people working on this, doing very sophisticated testing.”

“There’s no question the responsible thing was to close the bridge until we can actually determine what eventually needs to be done to repair the bridge,” Fisher said. The Louisville mayor said he recognizes that the traffic headaches spawned by the closure have been a tremendous inconvenience, but said it may have saved the area from a disaster. He said traffic plans were being continually adjusted in an effort to ease the commute from day to day.

Legislators had few details of exactly how funding would be allocated.

McConnell noted the regular highway bill as a possibility. Yarmuth added that it could also be made as a supplemental appropriation.

A question was raised about whether tolls could be used to pay for repairs.

While the legislators said there's been no discussion of that, Fisher said, “all options are on the table.”

There's also a litany of peripheral issues that may either help or complicate funding.

McConnell noted that Kentucky has several bridge issues it has to fund at present — referencing the Brent Spence Bridge near Cincinnati, the Interstate-69 bridge near Evansville and the Ohio River Bridges Project which seeks to build two new spans locally.

Yarmuth, referencing President Barack Obama’s recent speech on jobs, said the majority of Americans want infrastructure investment. Young added that congress is in the midst of a “thoughtful and sometimes spirited debate” on how to make that investment.

With the Sherman Minton closed down, an estimated 70,000 vehicles are being diverted through Clark County each day. It's put increased traffic onto the metro's only other two cross-river spans, the Kennedy Bridge on Interstate 65 and the Clark Memorial Bridge, which connects downtowns in Louisville in Jeffersonville.

 

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Allan Leith, and daughter, Grace, Louisville, head back after reaching the now blocked off end of the Big Four Bridge in Jeffersonville Wednesday afternoon.

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