Atop a bluff in Utica, a path of trees cut down across the Ohio River on the Kentucky shoreline clearly marked the approach for the east-end bridge.
Trees have been cleared on both sides of the Ohio River, along with other preparatory work that has been completed, in order to make way for construction to move forward on a new east-end bridge that will connect Interstate 265 in Indiana to the Kentucky 841.
On Wednesday, a host of local, state and transportation officials gathered on top of what will eventually become the Indiana approach to the east-end bridge to mark the project’s official groundbreaking.
A groundbreaking was also held in August to mark the start of construction on a 3,000-foot extension of Old Salem Road, which will be the first exit on the Indiana side of the Ohio River and connect the new span with the River Ridge Commerce Center and the Port of Indiana in Jeffersonville.
But the ceremony held Wednesday marked the start of construction activities on the east-end bridge and its approaches. Indiana is responsible for completing that portion of the project at a cost of $763 million with WVB East End Partners – Walsh Investors LLC, VINCI Concessions and Bilfinger Project Investments — which was chosen as the contractor. The WVB group will also be responsible for operating and maintaining the crossing through a public-private partnership entered into with the state of Indiana.
With construction of the actual bridge on the horizon, officials spoke about what it will mean for the region.
“The Ohio River Bridges Project is going to help Indiana and Kentucky become an even greater global distribution and logistics powerhouse, and I strongly support this opportunity for our state and for our neighbors to our south,” said Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. “The east-end crossing will, I believe, improve Indiana’s economy and spark economic development opportunities for our citizens.”
“I really do believe that roads mean jobs,” Pence said later. “And the improvements, the addition of bridges closer to downtown, the east-end bridge, all represent opportunities that are going to attract capital investment and are going to attract jobs to this region for generations to come. And when you think about the strengths of our region, which are manufacturing, and agriculture and logistics, the kind of infrastructure that’s contemplated here, the kind of land that is available in proximity to the larger metropolitan area, all suggest that we get these bridges done.”
Costs for the commuters that will eventually use the bridges once completed has consistently been cited as a concern.
Kerry Stemler, former co-chair of the Louisville Southern Indiana Bridges Authority, member of the Indiana Finance Authority and who will also serve as part of the group that will help determine final financial requirements and set toll rates for the new bridges, said that despite the start of construction, no timeline is available yet for when those details will be finalized.
“Those pieces are moving ... . The two states stay committed to what they were originally committed to,” Stemler said.
Among the considerations being maintained are that toll rates be kept as low as possible, with a $1 frequent-user rate and a special rate for frequent commercial users. But Stemler added those ideas are not fully vetted and the state is using the model that was developed to tentatively plan the financial requirements for the bridges project.
“People always worry about the tolls being too high. They need to be reasonable because we need use,” he said. “The tolls need to be reasonable, knowing this project has significant diversion.”
He explained that other options are available for local commuters in non-tolled crossings on the Sherman Minton and Clark Memorial bridges. If the rates are too high, the tolled bridges will not get enough use and will not meet the revenue requirements to make the state’s availability payments.
Pence also weighed in on the need to keep the costs for commuters reasonable.
“We’re just going to make sure that it’s fiscally responsible, we’re going to make sure that it’s economically sustainable, including for the users, but we’re going to get this bridge done,” he said.
Pence added that the public-private partnership model Indiana has chosen to use to finance its portion of the project has helped to manage those costs.
“We are committed ... to continuing to explore opportunities just like this across the state of Indiana because we believe public and private partnerships provide a better value to taxpayers,” he said. “These partnerships work because we’re able to leverage the best attributes of the public sector and the private sector to deliver a quality product. We believe the private sector always, with very few exceptions, will provide a better value for Hoosier taxpayers.”
Sidney Florey, North American representative for VINCI Concession, which will manage the P73 activities, added that the company will continue to have a local presence for years as it manages the operations and maintenance of the east-end bridge.
“For decades following the completion of the bridge we will remain part of your community,” he said. “Our goal is to create the east-end crossing that is constructed on time with the least amount of disruption to the citizens and to create a bridge that the community can be very, very proud of.”
Florey added there will be opportunities for local employment growth and during the next few months utility relocations in Kentucky and Indiana will occur, the south portal of the tunnel under the Drumanard Estate will be excavated and temporary bridge trestles will be going in the water.
INDOT Spokesman Will Wingfield said most of the early work will take place on the Kentucky side of the east-end approach, including traffic shifts for U.S. 42 and Kentucky 841, which are expected next week. He added that construction will continue to ramp up through June.
“We said we would move fast, and we have,” Pence said. “We said we were committed to this project, and we are. Today we’re celebrating the beginning of construction of a major transportation asset, and one that will be usable by today’s high school freshmen before they graduate, under budget, on time.”