Building bridges starts with civility

Dec 16, 2009 at 6:00 am

Bridges are built to unite people. How unfortunate to witness the recent trashing of groups that offer counter-arguments to the Ohio River Bridges Project proposal to construct two bridges in our city.

The most recent fireworks were ignited when the National Trust for Historic Preservation and River Fields filed suit to halt construction of the proposed East End Bridge.

Currently there are four camps:

• The Build the Bridges Coalition, made up mostly of business and political leaders pushing two bridges with a realignment of Spaghetti Junction.

• 8664, which wants to dismantle the elevated I-64 stretch along the riverfront downtown and loop traffic to a new East End Bridge. No new downtown bridge for them.

• River Fields, the 50-year-old citizen conservation organization, which advocates a new I-65 bridge downtown and a realignment of Spaghetti Junction. No East End Bridge for them.

• Public transportation advocates, a loose coalition that advocates improved public transportation, bike and pedestrian routes before constructing more government-subsidized infrastructure, i.e. bridges, for internal combustion engines.

Reasonable people see validity in all of these arguments. For some, traffic flow is a top priority. Others focus on economic development opportunities. Some say the big issue is protecting cultural and environmental treasures of the Ohio River corridor. Others want a majestic downtown waterfront. And for some, the biggest concern is the price tag of any mega-project. But too many of the loudest voices in the debate, including some local print and broadcast media outlets, react to anyone with different priorities with belittling, ad hominem attacks.

A healthy city in the 21st century needs people with passion and strong opinions to work toward the best solution to our transportation needs. Fortunately, Louisville has no shortage of such spirited people. Lately what we sorely lack is civility.

The way we solve our problems is just as important as the goal we reach. My history during the last 12 years of working with the more than 10,000 citizens who were moved from their homes and businesses with the expansion of our airport taught me how heavy-handed business and elected leaders can be in pushing an agenda without regard to the human cost. After years of work, the remaining residents living near the airport have organized and share forums with airport officials, with mutual respect. But it wasn’t always so. Fortunately, after years of hurt feelings and suspicion, civility now rules.

We need not make the same mistake with our ground transportation problems. The Ohio River Bridges Project is getting gray and dusty. It will soon be a stale 7 years old. The world has changed dramatically since public officials and business leaders cobbled it together in 2002 and 2003. The traffic and tolling studies are outdated. Gas prices have proven more volatile and prone to increases. Concerns over global warming have grown exponentially. Construction costs, especially of steel, have skyrocketed. The last estimate of the price tag for the two bridges proposal was $4.1 billion. With zero federal and state money available, tolls seem to be the only way to pay for the project, a funding source that will likely make the cost of the project over $8 billion. How much will the tolls be and which bridges will be tolled to raise that kind of money?

The biggest capital project in the commonwealth’s history perhaps deserves reconsideration in light of the changes we have witnessed since it was first proposed. Does it seem too farsighted to focus on a public transportation plan that includes light rail, rapid transit, improvements to our bus, bike and pedestrian routes? Every thriving major city in the world once had the foresight to make major investments in public transit systems. Shouldn’t we learn something from them?

If we revisit the issue it must be done in a manner that includes all camps, setting aside bickering and name-calling. We must acknowledge valid viewpoints from every side.

In the end, no solution will satisfy everyone. But we can move toward the best solution possible for our city and region if we acknowledge the first bridge that should be built is one that brings together differing groups who want what is best for our community.

No more trashing organizations or individuals who differ with us. We are one community with one goal: to build a great city filled with caring people.