NEW ALBANY — As developers consider options for the rehabilitation of the Sherman Minton Bridge, many community members are concerned about how closures and disruption in traffic flow will affect local business.
Southern Indiana business owners and stakeholders met with Sherman Minton Bridge project representatives Wednesday at Wick's Pizza in New Albany to learn about the upcoming bridge renovations and to voice their opinions on proposed plans for closure. The project team has been gathering community feedback as it considers its construction approach.
The $90 million Sherman Minton Renewal project is meant to improve the strength of the bridge and add 30 years to its service life. The six-lane bridge was opened to traffic in 1962, and it is used by about 90,000 drivers a day. The rehabilitation will include replacement or renovations of all bridge decks, structural steel elements and hanger cables, as well as new lighting, drainage repairs and painting.
The bridge construction extends not only to the main span, but also to approaches and smaller bridges within the Sherman Minton crossing. The construction approach should be recommended later this fall, and the contractor and design plan should be selected by fall 2020. Construction is expected to begin in early 2021.
Representatives from the Sherman Minton Renewal project discussed six different options for traffic flow during the bridge project, including full closure, two lanes open on both decks and one lane open on both decks, along with three options for one-deck closure with an alternating traffic flow between morning and afternoon commutes.
The shortest project duration would be a full closure at 15 to 23 months, while the longest duration would be one-deck closure with alternating traffic flow at 26 to 38 months. However, while there might be some full closures for certain periods of the project, there are no plans for a full closure of the bridge for the entire duration, and the team will likely go with a combination of the various strategies, according to Andrea Brady, spokesperson for the Sherman Minton Renewal Project.
Wendy Vachet, environmental lead for Michael Baker International, Inc., part of the project team, said while it is not viable that the bridge would be shut down for the full duration of the project, it would probably shut down at some point in the project, even if it's just a short period of time. She said as they put together the plan, they want to maintain as much access and mobility as possible while fixing the bridge in the shortest amount of time.
"I don't think that it's accurate to say that the bridge will never be closed," she said. "I don't think it's fair to say it's never going to be closed ... We don't know yet. Does it seem viable — because we have to look at a worst case scenario — based on everything that we've heard from the community that we would shut the bridge down to 15 to 23 months? That doesn't seem viable."
Many business owners are concerned that closures could lead to decreased traffic from Kentucky, and many expressed strong opposition to the full closure option. One of the concerns included how bridge closures would affect deliveries to New Albany businesses, including restaurants who rely on food deliveries.
Floyd County Brewing Co. owner Brian Hampton was among the business owners worried about a potential decrease in business. He said the brewery has many employees from Louisville that could be affected by closures, and many of the brewery's sales comes from across the river. He worries that his business could drop up to 40 to 50 percent from a full closure.
Develop New Albany vice president Bradley Fair, who is also the general manager of Wick's in New Albany, also expressed worries about closures of the bridge and urged the project team to mitigate the effects on New Albany businesses. The restaurant's sales dropped about 20 percent when the Sherman Minton Bridge closed in 2011, and it nearly closed. He said sales have already gone down about 20 percent in recent years due to sharing business with other restaurants.
"If you don't have sales, it doesn't matter how much planning or marketing you do," he said.
According Vachet, the project team is looking at overall community impact as it considers the options, but it is not conducting a formal business study. State Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany, said he would like to see a formal assessment of how the bridge closures could disproportionately affect certain business owners, such as a survey of downtown business owners who rely heavily on Louisville customers. He said the impact will vary greatly depending on the type of business.
"[The 2011 closure] was a very sudden thing we couldn't anticipate," he said. "Here, we can anticipate and we obviously are ... but if we are looking at 2011 as an experience, we had businesses who did better as a result of the bridge closure, because to be quite blunt, there were folks who discovered downtown New Albany. They couldn't go to Frankfort Avenue, they couldn't go to Bardstown Road easily, and suddenly they were finding that there were some incredible restaurants and shops in downtown New Albany. There were other businesses that went out of business because of the bridge closures."