April 29, 2009

New bridges: No laughing matter

The massive $4 billion Ohio River Bridges Project continues its tortoise-like pace with delays, setbacks and longer-than-expected implementation. This week it was revealed that historic building assessments are taking years to complete instead of the original projection of several months.

This is the latest in a broad history of flubs for the project.

On April 1, The Courier-Journal printed an article on the front page of the Metro section that discussed the lack of progress. On the back page of this section was another bridge article, about a new bridge being prepared upriver at Madison, Ind., for $55 million. This was not an April Fool’s Day joke.

New bridges are routinely being built across the Ohio River at a reasonable cost and schedule. West Virginia has built several for less than $54 million each. Near Owensboro, the Natcher Bridge cost about $55 million. Cincinnati has seven bridges to our three.

The bridges project is a vital initiative that needs to continue and achieve its ultimate completion. But in the interim, another alternative should be considered and implemented.

Local access bridges, like at Madison, Owensboro and West Virginia, are affordable options. Separating commuters from cross-state traffic would greatly lessen the stress on both. There are some technical challenges, but these are solvable and local-access bridges can be built now. In fact, a local access bridge was recently built here in Louisville at the Portland Canal. It cost $16 million and construction took less than three years.

The Clark Memorial Bridge is 80 years old and needs to be scheduled for replacement. These two new local access bridges would facilitate this. Plus, they would help avoid a major traffic disruption, should an existing bridge be closed for a period of time. The barge collision with the Sherman Minton on Feb. 5 demonstrates the vulnerability of our limited bridge system.

Another component to improve metro transportation would be to build a busway — an elevated roadway to be used by high-occupancy-vehicles — between these two bridges. Buses would circulate from New Albany and Portland to downtown, the medical center and Jeffersonville/Clarksville. A former railroad easement exists to facilitate this construction, and it can be elevated with precast concrete spans to avoid flooding. Park-and-ride garages could be placed on the Indiana side, and the buses could cross on the new local-access bridges.

Maybe these buses could even have a GPS tracking device to allow waiting passengers to monitor the estimated-time-of-arrival at their bus stop or via their wireless laptop, a user-friendly incentive. 

This busway proposal would be less than three miles long and of a standard design, where the buses could be fleet-maintained and serve other routes as needed. These buses would use non-oil fuel.

Louisvillians tend to have a “park free at the front door” mentality. Thus, any type of mass transit must be fast, inexpensive and very easy to use. This waterfront busway could achieve these expectations. It would also help facilitate an overall mass transit-dedicated system similar to light rail that could eventually spread throughout the region.

Louisville’s auto dependence isn’t going away anytime soon. The younger generation is seeking other options, especially after the $5-a-gallon gas-sticker shock this summer. Perhaps we can leverage this dilemma into a major economic development opportunity; this busway has such a potential.

Let’s say the cost is in the neighborhood of $100 million. How to pay for it? Well, there might be some spare change left over from the federal budget, but let’s not count on it. There will be revenue from fares, yet this probably won’t cover most of the expenses. 

Since TIFs (or Tax Increment Financing) have been used on various public improvements recently, most notably the arena, maybe a TIF along the waterfront and into the Portland area could help offset some of the cost, since this area will be benefiting the most from it.

At the Derby Festival’s Great Balloon Race, there was a balloon sponsored by the Build the Bridges Coalition. Talk about a classic image of hot air. Our competitor cities are building innovative, creative transit infrastructure to strengthen their growth and success. It’s past time for Louisville to get moving and implement our own doable alternative transportation solutions. Let’s not only make Louisville the number one livable city in America, but the most accessible as well.

Let’s move this community forward by building a realistic, affordable transportation system now.

Steve Wiser is a local architect and author of the book “Louisville 2035.” For more info on this proposal, e-mail Steve at WiserAIA@hotmail.com 

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