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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 fourth in a series of articles planned to address the current situation of the Ohio River Bridges Project. This article was originally published on January 12, 2012 and is reprinted with permission.]

In the first three parts of this series, I discussed how Indiana so badly botched its negotiation with Kentucky on the Louisville bridges project that its share of the project went up by $200 million at the same time the total project declined in cost by $1.5 billion, how this will result in $432 million being drained out of regular highway funds to cover a resulting tolling gap, how tolling likely results in Indiana paying even more, and the significant risks Indiana has taken on by agreeing to build a tunnel in Kentucky. Amazing as it sounds, Indiana’s biggest road project is now a $795 million, 1.4 mile highway in the state of Kentucky.

But just because I believe this deal is bad doesn’t mean I think the project itself is all bad. Indeed, I’m a strong supporter of the East End bridge, which is a generational investment for that part of the state. I also think the $1.5 billion in savings identified so far are great and a good start at getting costs under control on this project. But there’s still more we can do. So with that in mind, I’ll outline the changes I’d make to move the project forward.

#1 – Kill the Drumanard Tunnel

The first step is to kill the ludicrous $261 million “tunnel under the trees” in Prospect. I can’t speak to the veracity of this site since I haven’t investigated the matter personally, but a local named Denis Frankenberger recently filed a petition with the federal government to remove the expanded historic designation of the Drumanard estate. He alleges that Kentucky officials acted unethically in undertaking the proposed listing specifically to stop the East End bridge, and that there are numerous factual errors in the original filing that should result in it being withdrawn. He includes a pile of documentary evidence on this.

Delisting the woods and cancelling the tunnel makes a ton of sense, especially since no buildings would be touched in any case. Also, it isn’t necessarily true that a historically significant property can’t be affected by a highway in any case.

Regardless, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Kill the tunnel and save some more bucks. And even beyond that there’s probably still more savings to be had on the Kentucky approach.

#2 – Adopt 8664.org

I will only briefly cover this here since I’ve written about it extensively before, but 8664 is a plan to build the East End bridge, re-route I-64 through traffic across the resulting beltway, and tear down the I-64 Riverfront Parkway in downtown Louisville, reconnecting downtown to the river in the process. As a side benefit, Spaghetti Junction would be greatly simplified. Riverfront Parkway would be reconstructed as a surface boulevard, and I-64 outside of downtown would be re-signed as I-164, providing continued freeway access from Indiana and the East End to downtown on all existing routes. The proposed new downtown bridge would not be built.

Rendering of the 8664 proposal. (Courtesy 8664.org)
Rendering of the 8664 proposal. (Courtesy 8664.org)

This would save a ton of money – big money – and be much better for downtown Louisville to boot. What’s not to love? Better and cheaper is my ultimate combo.

You can read a much more comprehensive account of my take on 8664 in “The Case for 8664.”

You might also enjoy this recent NYT piece, “Parks Like Madrid Rio Stand Where Freeways Once Did.” (Big differences between Louisville and Madrid though: in Louisville there is no tunneling and the park option actually saves a boatload of money).

#3 – Revisit the Cost and Toll Revenue Allocations

With the above two items implemented, I think there’s a good chance this thing could be completely toll funded. This would be nothing but good news. I think it’s important to go back and re-establish key principles around how the project costs and revenues are divided. This might include something like:

Neither state will construct anything in the other state.

Reversion to the status quo ante on the cost allocation: Indiana pays 100 percent for everything on the Indiana side, Kentucky 100 percent of everything on the Kentucky side, and the two states split the bridge itself 50/50.

Allocation of revenue on a similar model: 100 percent of all Hoosier motorist tolls to Indiana, 100 percent of all Kentucky motorist tolls to Kentucky, all other tolls split 50/50.

Rendering of the 8664 proposal. (Courtesy 8664.org)
Rendering of the 8664 proposal. (Courtesy 8664.org)

I think this is fair. I think there are potentially other fair ways to do too. The key is to have something that is prima facie fair, and above all is fully vetted with the citizens and leadership of each state in a public way, not done in a backroom deal and announced via a press release.

To show the size of the impact we are talking here, if we just did one thing—revert to the original cost split deal, Indiana’s cost would decline from $1.3 billion to $839 million—a savings of $514 million to Indiana alone. This means Indiana wouldn’t have to take $432 million away from other projects to cover a funding gap on this one. And guess what? Kentucky still would get the lion’s share of the savings, which is only fair since the big item in the savings was reducing the scope of the Spaghetti Junction interchange on that side of the river. Still, $839 million is a huge amount of money, no two ways about it. And getting back down to this would be all for nothing if the toll revenue split ends up sending a bunch of Hoosier money across the river to finance Kentucky’s share.

Conclusion

As a blogger with limited resources, I was only able to do a preliminary investigation here based on publicly available documents. But it seems pretty clear that this deal has a whole lot of bad elements about it. Again, Indiana’s cost went up by $200 million at the same time the total project cost went down by $1.5 billion. This poor renegotiation of the cost split means that Indiana will now have to use $432 million of regular highway funds instead of fully delivering the project via a public-private partnership and tolling. The use of tolls puts Indiana at severe risk of paying still more for the project—and Kentuckians see this as a big advantage. And Indiana has agreed to built a grossly overpriced $795 million approach highway in Kentucky with a risky $261 million tunnel under some trees.

I’d certainly encourage the traditional media to step up and do a more thorough investigation than I’m able to on my own, though I realize they are also under tremendous pressure, financial and otherwise. There is a huge amount of money at stake and a whole boatload of critical unanswered questions.

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
Part Four: A Better Way (this article)

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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

12 COMMENTS

  1. It STILL amazes me that 8664 has not seriously been considered as a better (and cheaper) alternative to the Bridges Project. How can these politicians NOT see the benefits???? I look at other scenic boulevards like Lakeshore Drive in Chicago and wonder how GREAT it would be if Louisville had something like it. If anything, let’s Build the East End Bridge then see if we even need a downtown bridge.

  2. Those who give large political contributions to Louisville’s political leadership do not want a functional east end bridge that handles large volumes of traffic including hazardous materials. The interests of these few deep-pocketed northeast Louisville suburbanites have been placed over the other 1 million people in the metro region. Speak up for the silent super-majority. Prevent the biggest urban planning mistake of the 21st century. Divide the project, not the community. Build the east end bridge and multiple local-access bridges now. Save Louisville.

  3. @stunoland – How? I mean, I want the 8664 solution as much as the next guy, but from where I stand it seems pretty well set in stone.

  4. I haven’t been in Louisville long, but it has been long enough to hear about the bridge project. This is the first I’ve heard of the 8664 proposal, and I would much rather see it implemented than the current plan.

  5. From all of your writings it’s very obvious you are from Indiana and looking out for your own pocketbook and not the overall good of the area! That being said I think just about everyone is in agreement with not building the tunnel and by far the biggest majority want to build the east end bridge and then see what happens prior to building anything else. Looking at the numbers the east end bridge could be built without the need for tolls which would greatly encouraged people to use it. I’m not sold on 8664 but if the east end bridge took enough traffic it could possibly be feasible.

    One other point is that your idea but having each state build what’s on their side isn’t a viable alternative. Each bridge is a single project and should be managed by a single entity. Paying for the construction may be another matter but the management cannot be split for each project!

  6. @Porter Stevens
    I don’t have a definitive answer and it does in many ways seem ‘set in stone’ but I’m currently working toward my MA in a program with deep roots in community organizing and one of the tactics for community change that has been introduced, and I have worked with, that seems effective is power mapping. If you are not familiar a quick google search can provide details but determining who has influence over the project, and who influences those people, then meeting with identified persons in intimate settings to discover areas of common concern can help sway opinion. Additionally, building large, broad based coalitions of concerned groups/citizens and using the combined weight of these groups to persuade elected officials to at least consider alternatives can be effective when seeking to implement change.
    Perhaps this has been attempted? In louisville, I suspect it would be necessary to get some
    Major players on the side of 8664. Reaching out to humana might be a good idea, pointing out to them the health benefits associated with freeway removal and the way that could potentially lower the costs they see associated with respiratory problems etc. UPS would be another company worth meeting with to explain the benefits they would see from only an east end bridge and the removal of part of I-64. Of course citizen groups are also important, neighborhood associations on both the east and west sides of the city as well as perhaps church organizations. All louisvillians (even those of us not currently living in the city) are impacted by the ORBP, the trick is making people understand the current plan is not in their best interest and their are better alternatives.

  7. I cannot believe how misguided some of these posts are. To tear down Riverside X-Way for 8664 would be incredibly foolish, and in fact will never happen. Let me be clear, it will never happen – and if it did it would make the Sherman-Minton debacle look tame compared to the daily nitemare that would come out of this.

  8. Nothing will do more harm to our regional economy than the undemocratic, economically detrimental, and socially unjust downtown Ohio River Bridge Project. Louisville is facing decades of economic stagnation if the city locks its central business district river-front, image defining gateway, and historical heart into a 1950s style elevated waterfront express-way. At this point it is not necessary that Louisville remove I-64 from its river-front but it is imperative that the city have a plan to at least build a context sensitive roadway that allows for flexibility. Mr DeSlonie’s post excoriating the 8664 plan displays a blatant disregard for the conventional wisdom among urban planners, economic development experts, and today’s highway engineers.

  9. As long as Stunoland continues tagging every street sign and light post with advertisements for his website, I refuse to believe that he has the city’s best interest in mind.

  10. The many people participating in this non-permanent damaging political protest project will continue to speak up for the super-majority of Louisvillians opposed to the undeniably regressive downtown ORBP and against those who seek to damage our city’s ability to compete in the 21st century. The intentionally optimistic tolling studies are being used to fund a tolled 2 bridges project that the public clearly does not support. This subversion of democracy is a direct consequence of the political power of a small but powerful special interest group, Riverfields, a group whose president happens to be the wife of the top editor at the local paper of influence. The ultimate result of this crime against democracy is an undeniably regressive project. In Prospect there is a $795 million, 1.4 mile 4-lane luxury highway. What little money had been budgeted for aesthetic improvements downtown has been removed while the KY east end portion of the project retains all aesthetic treatments, including the $250 million+ tunnel and its annual maintenance/electrical bills. The ultimate insult to Louisvillians is that this project is building 100 year infrastructure that exclusively connects to a 1950s style elevated waterfront expressway on the the city’s image defining gateway, central business district riverfront, and historical heart.

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