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December 14, 2011

Bridges and symbolism

“The symbolism behind this project, I think, is huge,” Bridges Authority secretary Sandra Frazier told the Metro Council’s Transportation, Bridges and Public Works Committee on Oct. 6. “In this community, we like to talk about the things that we can do. But in reality, we’re sitting here talking about the things that we can’t do.”

Councilwoman Tina Ward-Pugh, D-9, offered another symbolic contrast. Years after the Louisville International Airport expansion displaced more than 1,000 working-class families, the Bridges Project is proposing a costly, lengthy tunnel beneath a historic property to minimize noise and pollution in the affluent East End.

The unfair extravagance “creates a symbolism I just can’t get around,” she said.

For opponents of tolling, the project is a symbol of regressive taxation, a disproportional burden on the less affluent, and an economic barrier to cross-river commuters and small businesses.

For authority co-chair Kerry Stemler, “It’s the most important civic project any of us, in our lifetime, will be involved in.”

Stemler and Frazier testified for a resolution urging two conservancies — River Fields and the National Trust for Historic Preservation — to drop their lawsuit against the project. Councilman Kelly Downard, R-16, a former member of River Fields, said, “Somewhere along the line, I think they lost their direction. But they’re not far from getting it back, I hope.”

However, despite blistering public criticism and the passage of the non-binding resolution, the co-plaintiffs seem destined to exhaust all legal options. And there’s no guarantee that Kentuckians for Progress, which has joined the suit as a defendant, will neutralize the effort.

As existing and potential litigation looms, other challenges lie ahead. A feasible financing plan for the project — perhaps to include a controversial public-private partnership — has yet to be seen. It will come under intense public scrutiny amid distrust of government and official data.

Despite staggeringly expensive “best guesses,” consultants are notorious for flawed forecasts — especially where traffic and revenue are concerned. Say No 2 BridgeTolls co-founder Dan Borsch, who likens the project to a welfare program for crafty consultants, opines of the financing plan: “The issuing of the bonds is the critical point of no return. Once the money is raised and the debt incurred, we will be stuck with whatever plan exists.”

The political climate is increasingly hostile. As Americans are forced to live within their means, many locals still view the reduced $2.9 billion mega-project as a product of incest between bloated, runaway government and business.

Some believe it began as an eastern bridge-only project that obstructionists freighted with add-ons to make it too big to succeed. Others think the massive project, however it evolved, was just supremely stupid — on par with riverside expressways, mullets and razing historic buildings to make room for parking lots.

Kentucky Transportation Cabinet Secretary Mike Hancock offered a more diplomatic explanation: “It was a different time,” he told me before punctuating the point of a June 2 press conference: The project would be modified “from a Cadillac to a Chevy.” But not a Prius.

Many wanted something innovative or visionary, such as the 8664.org concept. Environmentalists as well as advocates for the elderly and disabled populations wanted public transit infrastructure; instead they’ll get “enhanced bus service,” according to a recently released environmental update. The 595-page document will dominate the next chapter in this saga Dec. 19 and 20 from 4-8 p.m., in the Brown & Williamson Club at Cardinal Stadium and Clarksville’s Holiday Inn Lakeview, respectively, where public comments will be taken. Surely the scheduling, during an exquisitely busy week, isn’t symbolic.

In July of last year, former Louisville magazine editor Bruce Allar wrote, “Has anyone asked how people and products will be transported in 14 years? Will we still be sucking oil from hard-to-reach deposits and filling a tank for nearly everyone who qualifies for a driver’s license?”

The authorities-that-be obviously think so. They’re betting boatloads of our money on it. Which is symbolic of what Einstein said: “Everything has changed except our way of thinking.”