November 10, 2010

Bridges Project going nowhere slowly …

… but it’s not going away

A panel of the bi-state Bridges Authority last week concluded its case for the need for speed in eight figures: “Every month of project acceleration results in more than $10 million savings on total project costs.”

Conversely, every month of delay costs $10 million.

It was the boldest message of the Finance and Construction Planning Committee’s first meeting — an urgent manifesto to bridge the funding gap that’s idled the project since its 2003 approval.

How to span that chasm is the $4.1 billion question. “Traditional public funds cannot fully fund the project,” read one PowerPoint slide. That’s when tolling triggered pending studies that will stretch into next year.

The ultimate financial plan should provide for low and equitable tolls with minimum traffic diversion.

If federal and state funds and tolling revenue fall short, there are other lifelines. Six case studies of innovative financing tools included Denver’s E-470, the first U.S. highway to implement high-speed tolls. It was financed partly by bonds backed by a $10 per-year vehicle registration fee voters approved 58 to 42 percent.

But no case aroused the members more than Virginia’s Route 28, funded mostly by tax-exempt bonds backed by that state’s first incremental tax district in 1988.

“A good model of collaboration across jurisdictions,” said Joe Reagan, a member of the Bridges Authority.

“An awfully good model,” echoed Authority co-chair Charles Buddeke.

Former independent mayoral candidate Jackie Green, who routinely proclaims the project on life support, said the end is nigh. “Once the public hears about four or five different forms of taxes to pay for this thing while gas prices are going up, while we don’t have a public transit system, while we embrace sustainability, environment and community, it won’t take long,” he said. “And when the guys in pinstripes don’t show up, we’ll know it’s over.”

Dan Borsch, co-founder of Say No to Bridge Tolls, drew similarly grim inferences from the presentation: “They’re going to have to toll the bridges at an unacceptable level. Nobody’s willing to step up to the plate and say, ‘The project has to be changed; the money’s not there.’”

Ed Crooks, a strategic adviser to the bridges project, told the committee, “$4 billion is tough. It’s a lot to take on. But I think it can be done.”

Authority co-chair Kerry Stemler was very pleased with the meeting and remains committed to the lowest possible tolls. “The future of the Louisville region depends on this can not being kicked down the road,” he said. “Leadership in both states has the courage to stand up and get this thing solved once and for all.”

Consultants also championed cost savings through value engineering, which is required on any federal project in excess of $25 million. Significant design changes on an interchange near Utica, Ind., the proposed East End bridge tower foundation, and the elimination of a proposed Third Street exit ramp across the Great Lawn have saved an estimated $200 million.

The most controversial cost of the project is the proposed tunnel under the historic Drumanard Estate in Prospect. The Tudor-style house and gardens were duly designated on the National Register of Historic Places. But local architect and historian Steve Wiser documented that the subsequent 1989 nomination of the outlying landscape falsely claims it was designed by the firm of Frederick Law Olmsted & Associates.

As a result, the approach to the East End bridge may include an untenable $261 million tunnel.

Wiser and others have petitioned the National Register to de-list the property.

“He’s working with the appropriate folks on that,” said Gary Valentine, assistant state highway engineer for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet. “But they made the determination previously that it’s eligible, and that’s what we’re working off of. And we’re actually negotiating with the owner right now to purchase the preservation easement to follow through with the commitments” made when the project was approved.

Steve Schultz, executive director of the Bridges Authority, said if the tunnel was removed, the savings would be offset by the costs of some substitute, an environmental update, delays and possible litigation “by groups that were counting on the tunnel being there.”

Effects of the possible construction of the tunnel are at issue in a pending lawsuit filed by River Fields Inc. against the Federal Highway Administration.

The conservancy opposes an East End bridge in favor of a new downtown span coupled with a complete redesign of Spaghetti Junction.

But the East End bridge and its Kentucky approach remain first (2013-2017) in a sequence of six sections.

Say No to Bridge Tolls wants an East End bridge without tolls and opposes any tolling of existing infrastructure. “Spaghetti Junction is functional,” Borsch said. “Yes, it needs maintenance and changes, but to completely rebuild it with tolls isn’t worthwhile. Tolling ourselves for a method of transportation that is unsustainable is not a wise investment.”

Authority members say tolls won’t approach the $3 figure used for planning purposes.

Still, funding remains forbidding. The project last month was denied a $135 million grant that would have provided credit support for a $1.3 billion federal loan that looks equally bleak. “Competition is fierce,” Crooks said at the October meeting. “Availability is very, very limited. Among 30 project submitted for pre-approval, only four made it through.” 

Whoa!

By curtis morrison
"The ultimate financial plan should provide for low and equitable tolls with minimum traffic diversion." (Above) Newsflash: The ultimate financial plan should provide the least amount of net economic harm to the citizens of our region. That doesn't necessarily include tolls, or diversion. See the Mississippi River Bridges Project in St. Louis.