Here’s a riddle: What elephant-in-the-room public works project costs billions of dollars, is headed by an undemocratic panel of “yes”-people and rhymes with the Hale-Bopp comet, which was at the center of a mass suicide 13 years ago this month?
“The O-R-B-P,” Steve Wiser, a local historian, author and architect, says about the $4.1 billion Ohio River Bridges Project. “Or, as I like to call it, ‘Or-Bop.’”
As the head of his own eponymous design firm, Wiser is one of many area residents critical of the controversial and decades-spanning public works project, which aims to build two new bridges spanning the Ohio River and compound the already-clogged Spaghetti Junction by expanding it, destroying limited downtown real estate in the process.
“I think that at some point, reality has got to come into play,” he says, citing the project’s perpetually ballooning costs, which have skyrocketed some 2,000 percent since 1990. “It’s gone from $200 million to over $4 billion in the last 20 years. That $4 billion figure is based on a completion date of 2014. Well, they’ve recently moved that date to 2017, so there’s no telling how expensive it might become in the near future.
“They keep changing aspects of it, keep changing the dollars, but for some reason they won’t change the design,” he adds, citing that another component of the project, which would build a tunnel underneath the East End’s historical Drumanard mansion, has risen 300 percent in cost over the past three years alone.
Wiser has created an alternative to the Ohio River Bridges Project that would use two new local access bridges, one built in Portland and the other downtown, to de-centralize traffic along the Sherman Minton Bridge and a proposed East End bridge.
“The eastern bridge would be of great value,” says Wiser. “But there’s a lot that’s wrong with (the project). For example, the current Spaghetti Junction proposal will quadruple it in size, expanding it to 23 lanes, which is just outdated for Louisville’s needs.”
By circumnavigating the enormous cost and red tape-laden effort required to secure federal highway money, Wiser’s local access plan would cost only $1.4 billion, and could be constructed in as little as five years — a feature you think would be attractive amid the commonwealth’s $1.4 billion budget shortfall. Furthermore, a Portland bridge would result in commercial development that currently is unheard of in that area.
As with every other alternative to the Ohio River Bridges Project, however, Wiser’s plan has not-so-mysteriously fallen to the wayside: The appointee-only, 14 member bi-state bridges authority has made it perfectly clear that alternatives to the project have no place in a process whose head cheerleader, Gov. Steve Beshear, doesn’t “want grass to grow under our feet.”
Although Wiser sent his plan to authority executive director Steve Schultz, he has yet to hear back from him.
In lieu of this civic shutout, the community has taken to the (digital) streets. The Facebook group “Say NO To Bridge Tolls” formed just a few weeks ago in opposition to the bridges authority’s February announcement that electronic tolls might be used as a financing system for the project, and is one of many such groups criticizing the Ohio River Bridges Project and the panel’s lemming-like methodology.
“This notion that they’re going to put tolls on existing bridges that have already been paid for, that strikes a nerve,” says Dan Borsch, co-creator of the aforementioned Facebook group and co-owner of Old Louisville’s Burger Boy restaurant. Along with members of his group, Borsch sees tolls as a “regressive tax” that would charge motorists for use of existing infrastructure, and as a result he believes traffic would logically follow the cheapest (and therefore slowest) route.
“Everybody has a different idea of what should be done … but nobody wants tolls,” he says. “The overriding response has been that it just doesn’t seem right to toll these existing bridges to pay for the new ones.”
As a business owner, Borsch knows what it’s like to invest time and money on a dream. And to be told that dream might be a nightmare isn’t something people necessarily want to discover.
“A lot of people have invested a lot of time and effort in the current project,” he says. “It’s painful to suddenly be told, or come to the conclusion, that this effort isn’t going to pay off, I understand that. But no longer is this project a good project for Louisville. There are people who have spent 30 years to get these bridges built, and they seem unwilling to recognize that the facts have changed.”
Facts like, say, the rising cost of gas, the lack of affordable private transportation in Louisville’s urban neighborhoods, the environmental impact more cars would have upon Louisville, which has 5th-worst carbon footprint in the nation, according to the Brookings Institution — or, if you like, the ballooning cost of the project itself.
“I credit our current mayor and the editorial board at The Courier-Journal for putting fear in anyone’s mind for even considering an alternative,” says JC Stites, co-founder of the oldest Ohio River Bridges Project-alternative, 8664.org, which would at its essence create an East End bridge and remove I-64 from Louisville’s waterfront.
“It was the right time to look at (8664) five years ago,” says Stites. “Now, we are steaming along into a wall, and the costs and tolls required to pay for this project are becoming clear, so it seems that our leadership has led us on this path where the ORBP is much too big to succeed, unlike banks, which are too big to fail.”
While Stites isn’t as bitter about his treatment by the C-J’s editorial board as he could be, he lamented what he saw as the underlying tragedy in the whole affair; that we as a city can be led astray into believing we’re not capable of achieving great things on our own, and that we’d rather march off a cliff than own up to mistakes we’re making.
“The inefficiency of our government and, in some cases, our transportation department, forms a psyche that Louisville can’t seem to get anything done,” says Stites. “I hope with our new mayoral leadership we will be able to correct that.”
In the meantime, Stites, Wiser, Borsch & Co. will meet Saturday morning at St. Joseph’s Church in Butchertown, from 10 a.m. to noon, to discuss tolls, alternatives, and anything relating to the ongoing riddle of Or-Bop. If you think you can crack it, stop by. They can use the help.