Minutes after historic preservationist Donovan Rypkema finished his talk at last week’s smart growth conference in Louisville, Tyler Allen raised his hand. An affable 38-year-old who’s somewhat averse to direct confrontation, Allen retained a dead-eyed poker face for his ante in the Q&A, for his immediate situation last Tuesday afternoon was at once prickly and triumphantly serene.
Allen — purveyor, along with his friend J.C. Stites, of 8664, an idealistic alternative to the official plan to build two new bridges and expand Spaghetti Junction — was in a room full of professionals of varying degrees, all of whom concern themselves with transportation and urban planning issues. By virtue of their concept, Allen and Stites are polarizing figures among this crowd.
So Allen began by asking Rypkema, considered a national expert in his field, if he was aware that the Ohio River Bridges Project was directly responsible for the conference — it was a required part of the 2003 Record of Decision to go forward with the project. The speaker gave an affirmative nod. Allen riffed briefly on remarks Rypkema had just made about the importance of memory in economic development, growth and urban planning. He agreed with the speaker that memory is what gives things — roads, buildings, parks — both meaning and value.
Then Allen arrived at his question, which just about everyone in the room could see coming: What were Rypkema’s thoughts on highways that slice through cities?
A small group sitting far behind him pointed at Allen with half-smiles; one man seated at the table in front of me asked another if that guy was, in fact, Tyler Allen.
Rypkema, a professional, was clearly aware of the harsh politics that whip around the Bridges Project and its alternative(s). He artfully evaded a potential trap, saying he would reply to the question directly and abstain from arguing specifics. Rypkema had spent the last hour advocating the preservation of historic structures while redeveloping cities’ urban cores, offering with it four key responsibilities of a self-evident concept called sustainable development: environmental, economic, social and cultural.
With his speech still dangling in the static air of the Marriott Downtown’s Kentucky Ballroom, Rypkema’s answer was obvious. He said building highways through cities, much of which happened during the mid-20th century, was a terrible mistake that urban planners and engineers throughout the country have been laboring for a while now to fix. Allen and Stites nodded appreciatively and without emotion as he spoke words they say they’ve been hearing for the past year and more, from engineers to urban planners to smart growth advocates and beyond: Cities trying to grow their urban cores should disentangle the ribbons of highway laced through them. Highways have a destructive effect on downtowns everywhere.
This is nothing new, nor is it particularly controversial among those pushing the modern concept of smart growth, which came into existence in the early 1970s and into vogue over roughly the last decade. Waterfront highway removal, considered smart growth by most, has been proven several times over, in places like Portland, Ore. (where Allen got the idea for 8664) and San Francisco, Milwaukee and Chattanooga, Tenn., to increase property values on said waterfront, help convince more people to move there by enabling a more pleasant social area, and perhaps most importantly, to avoid creating more traffic havoc.
Based on these tenets, 8664 is a progressive concept that has, in the past year, gained considerable traction among a rather unlikely cross-section of Louisvillians: Youthful activists and businessmen and accountants and musicians and artists and politicians (though most won’t say it) and city officials (also, like politicians, afraid to voice public support) and housewives and attorneys and soccer moms and rich people and poor people are rallying behind the idea. Of the 7,855 people signed up with www.8664.org as of last weekend, an unsurprising 86 percent say they “support this new vision.” Chances are you’ve seen a strategically placed yard sign or bumper sticker around town over the past several months.
For most, it seems fair to say, the appeal of 8664 is in its utopian vision of a riverfront without the noodle of I-64 that runs from Spaghetti Junction to roughly 19th Street, a view ably represented on one of the five-foot-wide, full-color maps that Allen and Stites lug around when giving presentations.
From that view, it’s hard to see why anyone wouldn’t support 8664. Of course, plenty of people don’t, including the Abramson administration, U.S. Rep. Anne Northup (she’s worked a decade in Congress getting federal funding for the Bridges Project), engineers and planners working with and for the Bridges Project, and any number of others entrenched in the transportation philosophy that says adding traffic capacity is the solution to complicated messes of highway like Spaghetti Junction or heavily-traversed bridges like the Kennedy.
The alternative philosophy, to which Allen and Stites subscribe (so does Rypkema, at least implicitly in this case, and another keynote speaker at the smart growth conference, Walter Kulash, senior traffic engineer of a firm in Orlando who specializes in “livable traffic” design), says in essence that adding such capacity will induce traffic, or generate more; it says that, in Louisville’s case, drivers will ultimately adapt if I-64 is a surface road through downtown — two lanes going each direction that picks up from the current River Road, like 8664 would have it. Concomitant to that is the idea, supported by Kulash and multiple studies published since the mid-1990s, that technology is changing commuting patterns, that workers’ schedules are now more flexible than strict 9-to-5s, and by virtue of that, traffic has not grown the way it was predicted to a decade ago.
This philosophy jibes with current U.S. demographic trends, which show more people moving back into cities, countering in small part the sprawl of the last few decades. Think of the boom in the Highlands and along Frankfort Avenue in the last 20 years, or commuters coming to downtown from South Louisville, none of whom would have any reason to use I-64 to get downtown. It is, Allen and Stites contend, commuters from the rapidly expanding eastern portion of the city providing the multiplier effect on I-64 and Spaghetti Junction traffic, and they think it’s only a matter of time before that slows naturally. National demographic trends suggest people are moving back to cities, and simply don’t use highways to commute in and out of urban areas as much as they used to.
This is happening in Louisville, due in large part to city leaders who have been pushing it for something like a decade. Yet some of the same people who promote urban living and want to bring density to downtown also subscribe to the notion that eastern sprawl should and will continue, Allen and Stites say, and the transportation strategy of the Bridges Project reflects that. It’s the same all-in kind of thinking that landed Louisville with a $2.5 billion project that, rather than finding some kind of compromise, just gave everybody everything they wanted: a new downtown bridge, a new East End bridge and a reworked Spaghetti Junction that will end up about 70 feet wider than it is now over Waterfront Park. (That is a mitigated figure; before a recent decision to remove the existing Third Street ramp, it would’ve been more than twice as wide as it is now over Waterfront Park.) Additionally, the reworked junction will grow from 10 lanes to 23 — as shown in the money shot photo that 8664’s proponents rely on to make their case graphically — although that won’t be over Waterfront Park. It’s worth noting that comparing lanes may be misleading; at the same point, the present junction will grow from roughly 960 feet to about 1,050 feet.
Yet with all that’s at stake — quite literally the future of downtown Louisville — officials still refuse to examine the merits of the 8664 concept. They say a quick analysis, done over one day in 1999, and of which no official record exists, is enough to prove that excising the portion of I-64 from the riverfront and re-routing I-64’s through traffic to Southern Indiana via a new East End bridge, is wholly unfeasible. They say if Allen and Stites are so convinced of their idea, they should fund their own study. They are currently planning to do that.
Meanwhile, a November 2005 report commissioned by the Downtown Development Corporation deemed a concept eerily similar to 8664 worthy of further study. The report says it can potentially meet the goals set forth by the Bridges Project.
So why won’t they study it? With a decision on the table that will decide a century or more of transportation in, through and around Louisville, why not examine every angle thoroughly?
Downtowns and highways
“We come from what appears to be a target demographic for the city’s leadership,” Allen says, sitting comfortably with Stites last Thursday afternoon at 8664’s sparse Market Street headquarters, part of the Gallery Hop circuit. The huge 8664 posters, which Allen’s been slinging over his shoulder from presentation to presentation for more than a year, hang framed on the stark white walls. “We’re fairly young, we have families, young children, we are businesspeople, we own businesses, started businesses —”
Stites breaks in.
“We’ve grown businesses, we’ve lived other places, we support and appreciate the arts and creative services and want that kind of diversity in this community.”
Allen owns USA Image, a digital printing company that makes those huge “Louisville’s such-and-such” posters of famous Louisvillians hanging on the sides of buildings. Stites owns Autodemo, a Web and software development firm.
Allen starts again.
“We represent what they say they want. And so it’s a little hard when we make a suggestion like this for them to write off the messengers. Basically, if they write off the messengers too much, they’re turning their backs on the demographic they claim they want.”
This, in a nutshell, is the odd political circumstance of 8664. So far, those who would like to see Allen and Stites shut their mouths have said so quietly, the exception being a few musty, blowhard editorialists at the daily newspaper. The message coming from the Bridges Project and its engineers is that it’s too late, that turning back to consider 8664 would effectively mean beginning the project anew — changing it as drastically as 8664 calls for would probably kill federal funding. As project manager Bart Bryant said in an interview last week, 8664 is a fresh concept that has energized a decent amount of people, but it doesn’t fit into the existing plan, by his estimation.
“I know in theory what they’re trying to do,” he said. “But as an engineer, their plan is very, I don’t want to say vague, but they have not detailed the plan enough to really say what it is that it will do.” It’s worth saying that Bryant is friendly with Allen and Stites, and the three have talked numerous times about 8664 and the Bridges Project.
Allen says the proponents are trying to work within the project’s framework. It sounds something like a stump speech, virtually the same one often given by proponents of the Bridges Project.
“We want not to kill that project,” he says. “We want to change that project for the better, because we want something to happen. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with a large project on the table that people seem to support components of, and we have done some battling about talking about where to get the resources for it. That is a forward momentum we need to maintain, but we need to make sure that the end result is the best for the future of the community.”
The major issue motoring both concepts is simple: The city needs to find a way to deal with increasing traffic. There are two basic ways to do that: move traffic elsewhere or expand the system that cars already use. By the state’s traffic count, which is a snapshot rather than an average, traffic in Spaghetti Junction increased from 143,000 cars per day in 1995 to 149,000 in 2004. That’s 3 percent over nine years. Engineers had estimated on the same record that the figure would jump to 165,000 by 1998, suggesting the growth was nowhere nearly as high as forecast.
Bryant said the Kennedy Bridge is currently at 110 percent of capacity, and by the time the Bridges Project wraps around 2025, it will be at 140 percent or more. He said both the new downtown bridge and the East End bridge — which will take commuters to I-265 in Southern Indiana, also an integral part of 8664 — will together relieve the pressure, much of which has to do with getting to and from Indiana. The downtown bridge is the project’s sine qua non.
Conversely, the linchpin of 8664 is the East End bridge, which would help redirect I-64’s through traffic to the existing (and suburban) I-265. I-64 would reduce to surface level just before Spaghetti Junction, picking up as a four-lane boulevard (two each way), basically an extension of River Road.
“It is an appropriate use for the logistics industry to be on a suburban interstate infrastructure,” Allen says of shifting truck and other through traffic to Southern Indiana. By the Bridges Project’s count, 32 percent of I-64 drivers are passing through Louisville. “It is not appropriate in the middle of a historic city. All of that interstate truck traffic and things like that are one of the biggest complaints about this congestion.”
“If they had studied it with our objectives in mind — improving downtown, improving access to and from downtown, taking away an interstate from the middle of our city, from the waterfront, we are confident they could make it work,” Stites says. “It’s a matter of having that objective in mind and working toward it that we don’t think was ever in their minds as they did the supposed study that we’ve never been provided.”
Allen continues: “They also were attempting to get something done. They were putting together — this would have been at least a bump on the road to getting something done, so why in the world would they want to consider that? If you’re in the midst of compromise, the last thing you do is introduce something that you know will destabilize the compromise.”
The pertinent analysis was conducted over a single day in 1999, according to John Carr, a former deputy state highway engineer and current vice president of a Lexington transportation consulting firm who also helped develop the Bridges Project for about a decade.
“It was probably a day-long effort to look at something,” he said in a phone interview last week. “It wasn’t in a lot of detail, it didn’t need to be in a lot of detail. What we were trying to determine was whether it was prudent and whether it was feasible, and we came to the conclusion it was neither prudent nor feasible.” The decision was based on traffic analysis, he said, that proved to them surface roads couldn’t handle that amount of traffic.
It took roughly five years to get from an environmental study of the Bridges Project to the 2003 Record of Decision, which lays out a preliminary picture of the project, now about 30 percent finished with its design phase and something like $40 million deep. It will require major funding renewals for 14 years, maybe more.
Then there’s this matter: a report commissioned by the Louisville Downtown Development Corporation and delivered Nov. 22, 2005 that suggests 8664’s central tenet is not absurd at all. Called “I-64 Strategies,” it examines several alternatives to the Bridges Project that would still meet the project’s goals to improve cross-river mobility and decrease traffic congestion. The report is not a formal study but a tool for developing design concepts for better waterfront access in conjunction with the Bridges Project.
Citing nine examples of cities that have removed ribbons of waterfront highway to great economic benefit, the report concludes that removing the waterfront stretch of I-64 and making it a surface road, in conjunction with rerouting the through traffic to Southern Indiana, “partially meets project goals, but further study is needed to determine the viability of this alternative.”
Patti Clare, DDC’s director of project development, said Tuesday that the report suggests building a new surface road, which DDC worries would adversely affect access to the river.
“Then the question would be, would that new street — would we, by creating a new surface street, are we creating another barrier? That needs to be part of an analysis.”
Allen and Stites are trying to scrape together the money to conduct their own study, which they say could cost in the millions. They’ve been taking donations through Louisville Community Foundation, and have about $80,000 in the bank so far. They’ve also hired a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based firm to consult and compile an implementation strategy to conduct a study.
Visions of the future
For one reason over many, it’s worth being hopeful about something like 8664, at least as a concept or idea. Its instruction for us as a city lies in this simple yet seemingly unattainable concept: Louisville can change. We can take a risk on a large-scale solution rather than continuing to put Band-Aids on broken legs. Why not? As Walter Kulash said in Louisville last week, who says we have to expand the highway to deal with traffic congestion? Why can’t we make drivers go a different way? If demographics and major economic developments are suggesting a resurgent downtown, why not create a progressive transportation strategy to accompany it?
In a Jan. 23, 2006 speech in Washington, D.C., Bruce Katz — vice president and director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, which recently completed a major study on Louisville — said this of waterfront highway removal:
“Make no mistake, these are tough, contentious and sometimes costly projects, yet they are often the right thing to do and need additional support if they are to happen around the country.”
The measure of a world-class city is most often taken in its downtown. There is no way to accurately say whether 86-ing I-64 from downtown will be the economic boon Allen and Stites contend it will be. Likewise, it’s also impossible to assure Louisvillians that 14 years or more of major highway and bridge construction downtown — with the end result an urban zoo even more populated by automobiles — will kill the huge momentum Louisville has right now to reinvigorate our city’s heart.
With so much at stake, though, isn’t an open mind at the very least prudent? When suggesting an alternative to a $2.5 billion transportation project with so much potential for both efficiency and disaster is considered an impediment, do we not proceed then at our own peril?