The East End Bridge approach. (Courtesy ORBP)
The East End Bridge approach. (Courtesy ORBP)
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[Editor’s Note: Aaron Renn is the Urbanophile, an opinion-leading urban affairs analyst, entrepreneur, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive in the 21st century. Renn is a native of a small town in Southern Indiana near Louisville.This is the third in a series of articles planned to address the current situation of the Ohio River Bridges Project. This article was originally published on January 11, 2012 and is reprinted with permission.]

In previous installments in this series I highlighted how Indiana managed to increase its share of the Louisville bridges project by $200 million even as it bragged that the total price tag had gone down by $1.5 billion, how this led directly to Indiana having to allocate $432 million in regular highway funds to the project, and how tolling puts Indiana at significant risk of paying an even greater share of the project.

Today I’ll highlight how Indiana is stepping into a potential quagmire by agreeing to take responsibility for building a high-risk mini-Big Dig tunnel under a portion of Louisville’s most affluent community.

The Background Story

Plans for an East End bridge date back to at least 1969. Part of the problem with building it has long been that the Kentucky approach to this bridge would pass through the town Prospect, arguably the Louisville area’s most affluent and influential suburb. (For readers in Central Indiana, think “Zionsville” or Southwest Clay Township in Carmel and you’ll have the picture). The wealthy and influential residents there were long able to stymie progress on the East End bridge. They also had an ally in former Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson, who greatly feared a beltway connection that would allow traffic to bypass downtown Louisville. He promoted a new downtown bridge instead.

In the grand tradition of political compromise, Indiana and Kentucky agreed to build both bridges. This was in part possible because of a city-county merger in Louisville, which reduced the fear of downtown lobby because they would still control revenues from any East End growth the bridge might spawn. Hence was born the fiction of “two bridges, one project” even though there is no real transportation necessity to link the two and either one has independent utility.

But the Prospect residents were never going to give up. As part of their plan to kill the East End bridge, they managed to get the Dumanard Estate put onto the National Register of Historic Places to make it much more difficult to route a roadway through it. After the original listing that included the home and gardens, the listing was later expanded to include the entire 55-acre grounds.

If you are wondering how building two bridges got to be $4.1 billion in the first place, this is an example of how. To avoid impacting this single historic property, Kentucky agreed to build a $261 million tunnel underneath the estate. (LEO Weekly discussed this in an article called “The $260 Million Home.”)

The stunning thing about this tunnel is that the path of the road doesn’t actually affect any buildings, as this graphic from Broken Sidewalk illustrates:

(Broken Sidewalk)

If spending $260 million on this sounds ludicrous to you, then you are getting a sense of why Indiana shouldn’t be touching it with a ten foot pole.

The Financial Quagmire

The cost of the tunnel is pretty ludicrous by itself. But the entire Kentucky approach is grossly overpriced. According to the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, the cost of the Kentucky approach to the East End bridge is $795 million. As advocacy web site No 2 Bridge Tolls noted, this is a staggering $100,000 per foot. The approach on the Indiana side of the bridge plus the entire bridge itself is only $558 million combined.

This chart easily explains why the facile logic of the 50/50 cost split is crazy. Even if the cost split were reversed, it’s still ridiculous. Influential Kentuckians, attempting to insert a poison pill into the East End bridge (by killing the entire project if necessary), managed to grossly inflate the cost of construction on their side of the river with things like the ludicrous Drumanard tunnel that have no relevance or benefit to Indiana (or arguably even Kentucky). If Kentuckians want a $261 million tunnel under some trees, they ought to pay for it.

Call me crazy, but at $795 million for 1.4 miles of road, I think there just might be a little gold plating in this segment. That’s more money than it cost Indiana to build a brand new 10 mile freeway bypass around Kokomo. Heck, it’s more than Indiana is spending to convert 12 miles of US 31 to a freeway through Carmel and Westfield, right in the middle of some of the state’s most expensive real estate. Indiana would never build a road this crazy expensive for actual Hoosiers. I can only imagine the look on Mitch Daniels’ face if a Hoosier town asked him for something like this.

In any event, Indiana has agreed to pay for and construct this tunnel and very overpriced piece of Kentucky roadway. Which raises additional questions about the project. For example, does INDOT have the expertise to build a such a tunnel? I am not aware of a single genuine highway tunnel anywhere in the state of Indiana. I don’t believe INDOT has ever built one before, much less a complicated tunnel adjacent to a river with obvious potential for ground water problems. Kentucky may not be an expert at tunneling either, but they’ve built at least two, including one in Louisville on I-64.

As anyone who’s read anything about the Big Dig should know, tunneling is frequently plagued with construction problems and cost overruns. After construction the tunnels leaked, and part of one tunnel collapsed on top of a car, killing someone. While this isn’t the Big Dig exactly, similar risks apply. Governor Daniels can ask Mitt Romney for some tips on the risks associated with tunneling.

Indeed, we already know that the Drumanard tunnel itself has been plagued with problems. The price has already nearly tripled since its original estimate of $96.5 million, which augurs further cost escalations. The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet originally estimated a test tunnel, needed to determine soil and rock conditions so that the actual roadway tunnels could be designed, to cost $14 million. Actual bids came in between $19.1 million and $28.5 million, causing the KYTC to rebid the contract. (“Kentucky must get new bids on test tunnel”, C-J, Jan. 1, 2008 – not available free online). I’m not sure that they were ever able to get that test tunnel actually built. But problems just bidding that small test bore suggest further problems are likely. In fact, the Federal Highway Administration suggested Kentucky consider scrapping the tunnel, with the C-J noting, “High costs of sampling the geology along the proposed tunnel path and contractors’ concerns about the data’s reliability prompted talks of possibly building the approach on the surface rather than under a 50-acre estate listed on the National Register of Historic Places.” (“Bridge tunnel reconsidered”, C-J, August 23, 2008 – not available free online).

Given the risks here, it’s worth asking another question I didn’t see answered in any of the documents: who is responsible for any cost overruns on the project? If Indiana and Kentucky are each responsible for any overruns on their own sections of the project, Indiana would be stepping into a potential huge financial quagmire by taking on construction of a high risk tunnel without any experience in tunnel building.

Political Risk

Another key risk is political risk. One clear benefit of the current arrangement to the states from a purely tactical perspective is that Kentucky is outsourcing the construction of the most controversial segment to Indiana. While Prospect residents have huge influence in Kentucky, I think it’s safe to say that they have zero in Indiana. Their screams aren’t likely to impress anyone at the Indiana State House or at INDOT HQ. Also, this puts the segment Indiana most cares about entirely under Indiana’s control.

If I were one of those Prospect NIMBYs, I’d be none too pleased with this arrangement, in which Indiana builds a road through their town. There’s actually a point to be made there, as people should operate under the auspices of a government which at least nominally accountable to them at the ballot box.

The bridge moves forward and controversy erupts. There’s an eminent domain dispute (highly likely – and who is doing the land acquisition anyway? I didn’t read anything about that). Or there are complaints about contractors. Again, Indiana readers can imagine what might happen if INDOT sub-contracted a freeway through Zionsville to the Ohio Department of Transportation. It would be Armageddon.

When the inevitable disputes arise, who has the final say, Indiana or Kentucky? And who bears the cost?

Again, we don’t know the answers to all these questions. But it’s easy to see how they could be bad.

Litigation Risk

Litigation risk is another major concern. An East End group called River Fields is already suing over the project. That lawsuit, which hinges on historic preservation issues, is still pending.

Don’t expect the East End crew to go quietly into the night on this thing. I’d certainly anticipate additional litigation from them over any and every aspect of the project. Indiana should clearly understand the risks here, since it has already lived them. It had to scrap one EIS for the I-69 project after its deficiencies were exposed, crafting a second lawsuit-proof one with the help of a high priced DC law firm. This cost a lot of money and resulted in significant project delay. The bridges project is very similar to I-69 in that the preferred outcome of locals was already known prior to the EIS. This can lead to the temptation to do sloppy work in the EIS, treating it as a mere hoop to jump through rather than dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s. This renders the EIS vulnerable to lawsuits from project opponents who scan the document looking for any weakness to glom onto. (This is one reason it’s so ridiculously hard to get anything built in America these days).

Beyond EIS litigation, you can expect further lawsuits over Indiana building a road in Kentucky. I noted the political risk, but why wouldn’t wealthy project opponents in Prospect sue claiming that their rights are being violated because another state is constructing a road in their neighborhood?

Also, Southern Indiana resident Denis Frankenberger retained attorneys in Indianapolis who advised him that the Indiana constitution prohibits Indiana from building a road in another state. So this is another potential source of project litigation.

Now the entire project is subject to lawsuit risk, but the Kentucky approach segment that goes through Prospect is the part that has the most local opponents, and ones with money to indulge themselves in lawsuits. Thus I’d categorize this as by far the highest risk segment. Again, legal fees and delays could add to Indiana’s cost here, even if any potential claims were judged to be without merit. This is America, and people will sue over anything and everything.

Update: On Wednesday (1/11/12), Kentucky state senate president David Williams criticized the division of the bridges projects, saying that having each state takes one bridge opens the door to lawsuits over whether or not there is really one project or two.

At the end of the day, I’m not sure that INDOT really knows what it’s getting into with this tunnel and this project segment.

Next up, a better approach.

Indiana’s Bridge Deal Boondoggle
Part One: A Financial Fiasco
Part Two: Hoosiers to Pay Even More With Tolling
Part Three: INDOT’s Mini-Big Dig (this article)
Part Four: A Better Way

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Aaron Renn

Aaron Renn

Founder at Urbanophile
Aaron M. Renn is a policy analyst and writer on urban affairs. He publishes the web site Urbanophile.
Aaron Renn

10 COMMENTS

  1. Im sorry, but how would INDOT not “know what they are getting into” but the author have all the answers? Plus, Mini Big Dig? It’s a tunnel. They exist all over world and, while amongst “historic” real estate, not in an urban environment. Sensationalism at its best. Is whole series is less than informative.

  2. The author doesn’t understand construction nor the politics involved in the total project. To start with this tunnel will not be a major engineering feat and it will not be below the river’s water level, in fact it will be significantly above it. This bridge will have a major influence on economic development in Indiana and actually probably hurt development in Kentucky so Indiana wants it and needs it a lot more than Kentucky! The downtown bridge is just the opposite, Kentucky benefits while Indiana doesn’t. The splitting of costs that was finally agreed on is in the best interests of everyone.

  3. Only an extremely provincial mindset would allow one to favor the Downtown bridge over the logical east end bridge. In fact Over 60% of Louisvillians favor a toll-free east end bridge over the current undemocratic, economically detrimental and socially unjust tolled 2 bridges project (CN2 8/10). Virtually all cities around the world divert traffic, especially tractor trailer including haz-mat, around the city. This allows an improvement in quality of life for those living in the city and allows the city to grow 360 degrees around an urban core. This logical development patterns reduces infrastructure costs, lowers commute times and results in a more marketable city. Louisville needs to break out of this mindset that what is good for S. Indiana is bad for Louisville. Most cities grew out of this destructive mindset years ago. The development potential in Eastern Clark Co. is great with the large army ammunition plant being a particularly strong draw for companies that may not normally consider this metro region. With the political prospects of an urban growth boundary virtually zero it is a foregone conclusion that Louisville is going to grow. The only question is whether it is going to be stretched farther south and east into Oldham, Henry, Bullit and other counties or in a logical 360 degree pattern around the urban core.

  4. Large infrastructure projects can and frequently do run over budget. When KY was in charge the absurd tunnel called for a swiss boring technique never before executed in the US. This decision was made after the two previous test borings came back as too expensive. The real cost of the tunnel is actually higher than $261 million dollars. The existence of the tunnel necessitates an up to 65 ft cut into the hillside and the removal of tons of dirt off-site. The tunnel also will require millions annually in maintenance and operating costs from the ventilation fans. It is also important to note that none of the extensive aesthetic treatments have been removed from the east end portion of the project while the downtown portion of the project has been stripped of the minimal amount money budgeted to dress up the piers and girders. The $795 million, 1.4 mile, 4-lane, $795 million east end luxury highway and 4 lane east end bridge will be tolled at a higher rate than the downtown bridge. People do respond to price differences and a few more will choose the downtown bridge or free western bridge.

  5. The real injustice is how Louisville’s central business district riverfront, image defining gateway, and historical heart is treated. This project calls for tolling citizens against their wishes to build 100 year infrastructure that exclusively connects to a 1950s style elevated waterfront on Louisville’s image defining gateway. After the most recent cut to the downtown portion what little aesthetic treatments had been budgeted are now removed. At a time when virtually every city with a significant body of water is removing the eyesore of 1950s style elevated, Louisville is doubling down on this outdated and unmarketable infrastructure. At a time when attracting and retaining human capitol is the most important economic driver Louisville is doing the exact opposite of what is necessary to compete in the 21st century. Louisville is about to pull the plug and reopen the brain drain. The priorities of the full ORBP are in stark contrast to the conventional wisdom among urban planners, economic development experts, and today’s highway engineers.

  6. It is not necessary that Louisville remove I-64 at this point but it is critical that the city construct a bridges project that allows flexibility and has some semblance of equity. The majority of the public wants the economically disastrous downtown bridge project financially decoupled from the east end portion of the project and it must happen for Louisville to compete in the 21st century. Much needed local-access bridges will not be built in our lifetimes if the regressive and backwards downtown ORBP is built.

  7. Louisville needs bridges. We need the east end bridge and multiple local-access bridges now. The recent Sherman-Minton closure has shown the flaw in sending all urban traffic into the narrow I-65/2nd St. corridor. Louisville needs to spread that traffic over several bridges including a SW, Zorn Ave. bridge, and possibly another downtown bridge. There is a reason you don’t hear any local politicians push for much needed local-access bridges. The full ORBP project cannot compete with additional cross-river connections. In fact the toll studies up to this point have systematicly manipulated the data to inflate the toll-revenues.

  8. @stunoland
    Stu, while I think many people agree with you about a west end bridge it’s certainly not going to happen in any of our lifetimes unless Horseshoe pays for it!

  9. I’m guessing that the only reason Indiana took on full responsibility for the East End Bridge was to insure that it would actually get built. I’m hoping that they build the bridge and then announce that they’ve run out of funds and can’t build the ridiculous tunnel.

    The tunnel will almost certainly cost much more than the current estimate. It’s a complete boondoggle.

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