State transportation planners got the OK Wednesday morning to start building the Ohio River Bridges Project.
The Federal Highway Administration approved the Ohio River Bridges Project’s record-of-decision on Wednesday for the scaled-down, $2.6 billion plan to build an east-end bridge, downtown bridge and reconstruct Spaghetti Junction.
“We have received some monumental news this morning,” said Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer at a press conference Wednesday afternoon. “This means the project now has the green light to start construction.”
Transportation planners were waiting on federal approval after submitting plans that scaled down the bridges project from a 2003 record-of-decision with a price tag of $4.1 billion.
“After 40 years of debate, after 40 years of talk and after 40 years of discussion we are going to build these bridges,” Fischer said.
He went on to describe what impact the bridges will have on the area.
“The project’s going to have a ripple effect on our city and on our entire region,” Fischer said. “It certainly means better cross-river mobility ... it [also] means jobs.”
He cited that to construct the bridges, 4,100 jobs will be brought to the region. He also referenced an economic impact study that cited the bridges project will bring 18,000 jobs, or a 2.6 percent increase in employment, to Louisville and Southern Indiana. However, the study Boston-based Economic Development Research Group study referenced estimated the nearly 18,000 jobs that will come to the region are over a 30-year period.
“This is a decision that enhances the importance and relevance of our region to this country for mobility, for transportation, for commerce, and we couldn’t be happier that we received the record-of-decision today,” Fischer said.
“We’re moving full steam ahead with this project,” added Kentucky Transportation Cabinet Project Manager Gary Valentine.
He noted that Indiana already has announced plans to break ground on the first portion of the project in August. The part of the project that was announced in May was that Indiana will break ground on the east-end crossing of the Ohio River Bridges Project. Indiana Department of Transportation plans to construct a $5.5 million road extension of Old Salem Road that will ultimately connect the River Ridge Commerce Center to Interstate 265 and the future east-end bridge.
Kentucky plans to break ground on its portion of the project before the end of the year, Valentine said.
With groundbreaking planned, a few lingering questions remain.
Among them is that the highway administration has still not offered an approval for tolling as a funding mechanism on the project. But approval is expected.
“Federal highways could not act on a tolling agreement until we evaluated the impacts of tolling,” Valentine said. “That has been done. This was a major hurdle we got by today.”
Tolling scenarios were included in the financial plan agreed to by the states as well as a funding mechanism in the Supplemental Final Environmental Impact Statement submitted to the highway administration. Environmental affects of tolling also were examined.
“It is anticipated that we will have all elements in place before ground is broke[n] in August,” Valentine said.
He added that includes tolling approval.
Another outstanding issue with the bridges project is an ongoing lawsuit filed by eastern Louisville conservancy group River Hills. Valentine said the lawsuit was included in documentation submitted to the federal government in seeking the record-of-decision and it is not viewed as an obstacle to beginning construction.
“I think the strongest statement is when the federal government took that [lawsuit] into consideration, with this record-of-decision that came forth, they clearly feel like there’s no standing there as well,” Fischer said.
In addition to the lawsuit designed to block the east-end portion of the project, a controversial $255 million tunnel under the Drumanard Estate on the Kentucky approach to the east-end bridge was part of the plan included in the record-of-decision.
“The tunnel is still part of the project,” Valentine said.
Indiana transportation officials were not present at the press conference announcing the approval.