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October 3, 2012

A wicked sister bridge

When the early 21st-century history of Louisville is written, if the Ohio River Bridges Project proceeds as planned, I can already hear the official refrain: “Mistakes were made.” Michael Kimmelman, a New York Times critic, made a big splash in the local news media last week. His conclusion: Plans for a downtown bridge parallel to the Kennedy should float, like a petrified cow pie, downriver.

The piece amounts to an editorial endorsement of highway reduction coupled with public transit — which the current plan ignores or, some say, forecloses.

I can already hear the project cheerleaders panning this piece a la Ann Romney: “Stop it. This is hard. You wanna try it? Get in the ring.”

About seven years ago, Tyler Allen and J.C. Stites did just that. The local entrepreneurs masterminded a plan to do for Louisville’s waterfront what progressive cities had done with spectacular success: reclaim the riverside from the shadows of raised highways. Their proposal, still alive at 8664.org and on Facebook, has more than 11,700 supporters.

It relies on a planned eastern bridge, which would divert enough traffic from downtown to minimize congestion on a pedestrian-friendly boulevard that would replace a 2-mile stretch of I-64 (between I-65 and 15th Street). “But this ring road is tethered to the scheme to expand the downtown interstates and build another new bridge, next to the Kennedy … an idea backed by politicians aligned with business leaders …” Kimmelman writes. “Adding more lanes doesn’t turn out to reduce traffic. It increases traffic. The phenomenon is called ‘induced demand.’”

Thus the downtown portion of the project, in its current incarnation, makes 8664 an impossible dream. And there’s a nightmare scenario with induced demand. As heavy downtown traffic approaches bottlenecks at I-65’s Hospital Curve and I-64’s Cochran Hill tunnel, why wouldn’t those “pinch points” turn those two interstates into parking lots during rush hours?

How did this wickedness happen? Betsy Merritt, an attorney for the National Trust for Historical Preservation, offered an explanation when her group co-filed a lawsuit with River Fields three years ago: The project “was cobbled together as a political compromise …”

At a recent groundbreaking ceremony, bi-state political leaders congratulated one another for their bipartisan cooperation and pretended to forget a cn|2 poll of Louisville residents in August 2000. Only 14.5 percent supported building two bridges while 50.3 percent supported an eastern bridge only.

Officials called the survey irrelevant. But numerous public comment sessions validated its findings.

Pleas to divide the project — to build an East End bridge first, then wait and see if another was needed — were denied. Officials insisted the mega-project couldn’t be divided or reduced. Last year, they downsized it (though not enough) and prepared an expedited, revised environmental study in nine months. Oh, and they split the financing evenly between the states.

Still, there’s a nagging sense that the government isn’t listening.

Plaintiffs in the case have concerns with the impact of the proposed East End bridge on the human and natural environments. That incredible sucking sound they hear is sprawl — the migration of jobs, housing, investment and tax dollars from Louisville to southeastern Clark County. Nobody denies that it’s a real threat; thus, nobody’s calling the lawsuits frivolous.

Yet a $60,000 study commissioned by the state found that an 8664-like (eastern bridge-only) plan yielded the same system-wide performance (daily vehicular miles traveled and time spent traveling them) as a two-bridge project. If only sprawl could be regulated — on both sides of the river — we would have no fear of sacrificing our urban soul to become a city of office parks.

They say the project would benefit the people and the region. But which people? There will be winners and losers.

Amid our highway construction fatigue, we’re contemplating years of downtown disarray and congestion — and tolls with no end in sight. Kimmelman is exactly right: “Louisville needs to devote far more resources to public transit.”

Let’s stop trying to defy the gravity of an increasingly poor and aging population and start living within our means. Our choice is clear: to repeat a mistake or make history with a vision. 

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