The Great Barrier

Neighborhood leaders, preservationists decry Ohio River Bridges Project as an object of obstruction, not innovation

Oct 6, 2010 at 5:00 am
“It fails to address making a walkable, livable city in the 21st century,” says Andy Cornelius, president of the Butchertown Neighborhood Association. “It fails to address public transit. It strengthens the barrier between the city and the waterfront in an age when cities are looking at alternative ways to connect them.”
“It fails to address making a walkable, livable city in the 21st century,” says Andy Cornelius, president of the Butchertown Neighborhood Association. “It fails to address public transit. It strengthens the barrier between the city and the waterfront in an age when cities are looking at alternative ways to connect them.” Photo: Ron Jasin

There is such a thing as too big — especially when you’re paying by the inch. And particularly when the product is ugly and obsolete, not to mention slow, noisy and hazardous to erect.

Those are the biggest beefs of neighborhood leaders and preservationists against a proposed downtown bridge and the relocation of a mega-junction.

And the backdrop is worthy of a big top.

Tension looms large as the Louisville and Southern Indiana Bridges Authority clamors to finalize a financial plan for the $4.1 billion Ohio River Bridges Project by December. That’s the big deadline. Lack of financing has been the biggest obstruction to progress, so the plan will make a big splash. If the tolls are high or they’re imposed on existing infrastructure — or perhaps at all — opponents will make a big stink.

The frenetic pace coincides with a growing sense that the project should be reduced because it’s unduly huge and costly.

As the bi-state Bridges Authority has denied requests to divide or reduce the project, percolating public frustrations have given rise to incivilities, including claims of business leaders intimidating opponents.

The bi-state authority appears committed to its all-or-nothing gambit even after a poll revealed a stunning erosion of support for the total package.

The project’s potential threats to downtown Louisville, Butchertown and historic Jeffersonville are clearly illustrated on Broken Sidewalk, a website focused on neighborhoods and development. Citing maps from the official Bridges Project website, Branden Klayko details the damage of expanding I-65 from seven to 12 lanes over the city’s central core.

He salutes endangered landmarks — the Baer Fabrics Building, the Grocers Ice and Cold Storage Warehouse, the Vermont American factory — and adds, “Maybe worse than demolition, the Billy Goat Strut apartments on Main Street and Hancock Street, one of the first redevelopment projects in town with some of the best historic architecture, will have a great view of the highway, what appears to be 15 to 20 feet from its windows.”

If that’s not weird enough, Klayko traces, along four city blocks, a waterproof walk — a zigzag to be covered by infrastructure.

Klayko’s groundbreaking exposé, titled “Standing Under The Highway, Regretting,” includes a prescient disclaimer: “While these plans and maps are likely to change here and there, and the designs are finalized, it won’t get much better.”

Danger zones
Twenty-one months later, it’s remarkably the same.

“In the past year, the only significant design change has been the diverging diamond interchange at 265 and 62 near Utica, Ind., which will save the project approximately $60 million,” says Chuck Wolfe of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet. “Most of the recent activity involves right-of-way acquisition, detailed engineering planning and historic mitigation.”

Butchertown, which would be most affected by the project, “is in grave danger, with a 23-lane interchange sitting on its shoulder,” Klayko says. The relocation of Spaghetti Junction a half mile south would encroach on its long northern border. Just beyond its northwest corner, two four-stack roads with “modern clearances” could tower as high as 70 or 80 feet.

“The city cannot sustain 15 years of downtown construction,” says Andy Cornelius, president of the Butchertown Neighborhood Association. “Think about the logistics of bringing the steel girders, the concrete, one truckload at a time — and the pounding. You know our homes are brick and mortar. The vibrations, the shock waves, the aftershocks that come out of drilling thousands of pylons could seriously jeopardize the integrity of some of these houses — especially closer to the expressway.”

His old brick home in the 800 block of East Washington Street is too close for comfort.

Cornelius photographed the ruins of a brick house that collapsed at 1401 Story Ave., in Butchertown’s east end. Renovation work had compromised its structural integrity, but the disaster served as a chilling reminder of the fragility of the neighborhood, and previewed its worst fears vis-à-vis the proposed demolition and reconstruction of an expanded Spaghetti Junction, which includes the controversial widening of I-64 over the Great Lawn.

“It fails to address making a walkable, livable city in the 21st century,” Cornelius says. “It fails to address public transit. It strengthens the barrier between the city and the waterfront in an age when cities are looking at alternative ways to connect them.

“With something like this, you’re not promoting a city of the future. You’re using planning and design aspects from 50 years ago — build it bigger, faster with more interstate — and not looking at current trends and where they’re heading. They’re not looking at the long-term effects of what they’re proposing — and that’s frightening.”

Jim Segrest, a retired city planner who preceded Cornelius, also sees it as an obsolete monstrosity. “I think the environmental impact in general is the biggest problem for the whole city and definitely for us,” he says. “I mean, the whole idea of 22 lanes of concrete between us and the river is a big deal.”

Segrest lives in a historic home (circa 1790s) where Beargrass Creek flows under Frankfort Avenue.

As members of an advisory team, he and Cornelius advocate to project consultants in meetings both describe as exercises in frustration, as they are “faced with politeness in a room full of tension,” Cornelius says.

Their top priority of Butchertown is going nowhere.

Current plans call for the expansion of overpasses on Story and Mellwood avenues to accommodate proposed lane additions to I-64.

The neighborhood sees it as an opportunity to reclaim the walkable charm and stop-and-shop accessibility of its past by eliminating the interchange at Story Avenue, installing a full interchange at Mellwood (four ramps instead of two) and restoring two-way traffic to both.

“I think that’s crucial to fostering a neighborhood feel and bringing small businesses back to those routes,” Cornelius says. “Right now, it’s just a thoroughfare into downtown.

“The excuse we’ve gotten is that the streets can’t handle the capacity now, but basically that comes down to them wanting to build modern, Hurstbourne Lane-sized streets through our neighborhood. They’re trying to bully us instead of make it work.”

Segrest, who’s been attending public meetings on the project for a decade, remembers when the master plan approved in 2003 called for a special study “on the possible conversion” of Mellwood and Story avenues back to two-way traffic. Businesses overwhelmingly support it, he explains, “because one-way streets are terrible for business.”

The study evolved into a two-way plan that was adopted by the Metro Planning Commission and Metro Council. Current plans call for parts of eight downtown one-way streets to go bi-directional, so “the whole idea that Mellwood and Story would remain one-way very deep in the future is kind of crazy,” according to Segrest. But they’ll remain one-way for the time being. “The excuse they (state contractors) gave is that the city wouldn’t work with them in getting Mellwood two-way,” he says.

Cornelius, a cheerful, sporty 28-year-old, turned sour when he reviewed design options for the proposed overpasses. “Do you want crappy concrete or crappy concrete veneered over in brick?” he says. “We don’t need it, we don’t want it, and we certainly don’t want to pay for it.”

‘Black-hole spine’
There are other issues. The proposed Witherspoon Street extension to Frankfort Avenue doesn’t tie into the neighborhood grid, and relocated power lines remain aboveground, both of which “will diminish the best possibilities we might have for development along Witherspoon,” Segrest says.

The top concern of Metro Councilwoman Tina Ward-Pugh, D-9, is the trauma of blasting, drilling and hammering near beloved old buildings.

“It’s an impossibility to believe that we’re not going to lose historic structures,” she says. “There’s just going to be some unplanned, unexpected losses just by virtue of all the work that has to be done.”

She’s also vexed by the futility of it. “It is an unnecessary expenditure to implement an outdated transportation solution to future transportation challenges. It’s a wrongheaded, misguided, backward solution.” Ward-Pugh, a self-confessed convert to the green movement, favors light rail and rues the day it was shelved in favor of the Bridges Project. Her outspoken criticism has drawn intimidation tactics.

“They’re bullying us — and I refuse to be bullied,” she says. “The good news is that we’re no longer asleep at the wheel.”

The project overshadows the sunny side of the river, too. A new span immediately east of the Kennedy Bridge would carry I-65 traffic northbound, while the Kennedy would become a southbound-only conduit. Thus the approaches on both sides of the river would have to be widened considerably. “I-65 is already a very divisive urban element,” says Greg Sekula, Southern Regional Director of Indiana Landmarks. “It’s hard enough right now just dealing with the ‘no man’s land’ underneath, but when you add another series of lanes, it’s going to create a real black-hole spine. Despite the obligations and commitments the state has to landscaping and lighting ... it’s still going to be a challenge to create something that’s not going to be seen as a blight.”

The George Rogers Clark Memorial Bridge is also a major concern. For northbound traffic, the bridge ends at Court Avenue. But in a May 14 Broken Sidewalk post, Klayko cites a Bridges Project map showing that “you will be forced to take an off-ramp from the bridge, which deposits you on an extended Sixth Street in Jeffersonville” and “when you get to the end, you’re buried under 16 lanes of concrete.”

Sekula says that city officials have a “real interest in getting that whole thing redesigned. They really want to keep the Court Avenue connection to the bridge intact. But given the engineering as it was described, it didn’t look like that was going to be possible.”

It also appears impossible that the historic Art Deco limestone pylons flanking the approach would remain undisturbed. “The design cannot be reduced to avoid the pylons,” according to the 2003 Record of Decision. “In the event the pylons cannot be avoided, a Treatment Plan will be developed to minimize damage to the contributing elements of the structure, including the retaining walls and administration building.”

In an e-mail sent to LEO, Will Wingfield of the Indiana Department of Transportation echoed that assurance, adding that, if necessary, the state would “document and relocate them into an environment that depicts their historic significance.”

Sekula is confident that “the safeguards are there. They’re still going to be essentially connected to the bridge. They may have to be elevated some, but they’re going to stay in that general vicinity.”

He’s far more concerned about issues that were unanticipated when the project was approved seven years ago.

“Tolling was not part of the discussion leading up to the Record of Decision,” he says. “The decision to impose tolls on one or more bridges could have a very detrimental impact on historic properties not only in Jeffersonville but New Albany.”

Another publication that’s losing relevance is the 2006 Jeffersonville Historic Preservation Plan developed by the state as part of mitigation. “The length of time has created changes that have diminished the value of this document,” he says. “Maybe it’s fair to think about re-evaluating the downtown portion of the project.”

The bi-state authority has shown no inclination to re-evaluate the project, despite growing controversy and doubts that it can be financed responsibly. A financial plan including tolling is expected by the end of the year.

“If they do come out with a recommendation that tolling takes place, I think there’s going to be a huge public outcry and a lot of political maneuvering, and they’ll focus on the East End bridge,” Sekula says.

A sin of pride
Many observers can’t understand why the Bridges Authority won’t retreat from its rigid position. “I just don’t see how, with the level of public outcry, that they can continue to be against the will of the people,” says Butchertown’s Cornelius.

Sekula has a “sin of pride” theory: “It’s like they’re refusing to admit that maybe they were overly ambitious, maybe they can’t get there. And I don’t think people would necessarily fault them (for relenting). It seems to be more of an internal bureaucratic concern than a public concern, and yet the public is financing the project.”

Sekula likes an idea floated by Louisville architect and historian Steve Wiser “that has some merit and needs to be looked at.” It proposes an East End bridge, one or two local access bridges, some quick fixes to Spaghetti Junction, a “gateway connector” for I-64 and I-71 to east downtown, without going through Spaghetti Junction, and a cross-river, mass-transit bus route.

He says his plan, which can be seen at, “can improve transportation and economic development by 2016 for less than $2 billion.”

His companion study claims found that most of the congestion in Spaghetti Junction was caused by back-ups from accidents beyond it and that the ORBP would not lessen the danger of Hospital Curve.

Despite the clamor for interstate bridge safety lanes, he found none between Frankfort and Kansas City or between Louisville and Cincinnati. His conclusion: “Doubling or tripling the size of Spaghetti Junction will not solve this congestion-safety situation.”

Dr. Stanley Collyer, who is not an architect but who’s been publishing the architectural journal Competitions for 20 years, did his own study two years ago. He found that the East End bridge would divert 33 percent of the heavy-truck (18-wheeler) traffic from the Kennedy Bridge and keep the total volume units well below capacity beyond 2025.

Yet ORBP supporters point to a study showing only an 18 percent reduction of volume in 2025 with an East End bridge only.

“Actually, the construction of the East End Bridge drops about 20 to 25 percent off the downtown bridge,” Republican mayoral candidate Hal Heiner said at a recent forum.

Collyer says, “One of the reasons their early predictions that there would be gridlock by 2010 haven’t held up is because with the rise in gas prices and the economy, people are cutting back.”

An abundance of variables in a fast-changing world makes traffic projections, especially at long-term fixed rates, a risky business.

Seth Godin, a marketing phenom who has written 12 international bestsellers, believes that working at home will become more popular in the next five or 10 years. “More and more, though, the need to actually show up at an office that consists of an anonymous hallway and a farm of cubicles or closed doors is just going to fade away,” he wrote in Time magazine last year. “It’s too expensive, and it’s too slow.”

Tolling studies also are tricky. They notoriously overestimate traffic volume and revenue.

“The problem is that there is no incentive for their estimates to be accurate as they stand to profit either way,” said Shawn Reilly, co-founder of Say NO to Bridge Tolls, after a Bridges Authority meeting in August. “Tolls must be taken off the table as a financing option because failed forecasts ... have resulted in defaults and bankruptcies across the country.”

Reilly asked the bi-state authority to build the East End bridge without tolls by dividing the project into operationally independent phases according to Federal Highway Administration guidelines (as was done in St. Louis). But Steve Schultz, executive director of the Bridges Authority, dismissed the idea, saying there would be a five-year wait between phases.

“This is a 50- to 100-year decision,” Councilwoman Ward-Pugh says. “What’s five years in the context of 100 years?”

Last April, the Jeffersonville Evening News & Tribune editorialized on the issue. “Evidence and examples (such as St. Louis’ new interstate bridge crossing) seem to support the idea that we can proceed on building the East End bridge while evaluating and reconsidering the downtown plans. Doing so should not jeopardize the entire project, and maybe no other options would even be chosen.”

Tolling has made the Bridges Project a titanic issue in Louisville’s mayoral race. At consecutive authority meetings, independent candidate Jackie Green pronounced the project “on the ropes” and then “down for the count.”

After the last meeting, attorney Ed Glasscock, former chairman of the pro-Bridges Coalition, hectored Heiner campaign manager Joe Burgan about a Metro Council resolution against tolling.

Public attention is increasingly focused on the political origins of the Bridges Project and its authority.

“The project is a boondoggle, obviously,” said citizen Rex Vest during a public comment period last in August. “It was born out of political compromises and continues to be pushed by ... poor political leadership on both sides of the river.”

At the same meeting, Reilly quoted then-candidate Steve Beshear, who said the following during a 2007 KET forum while running for governor: “I don’t like toll bridges. I think they impose a kind of tax on a lot of people, indirectly ... I do think we are going to have to sit down with our federal delegation and the federal government and come up with some creative solution and put everything else on the table.”

Wiser thinks the Bridges Project, because it involves tolling, most likely will be an issue in the governors race next year; some view tolls as a tax on existing bridges that have already been paid for. He adds that Republicans will make this a populist issue against the Beshear-Abramson ticket.

The Bridges Project is dividing the community. A pending lawsuit by River Fields and the National Trust for Historic Preservation upsets Edie Bingham, a longtime, award-winning member of both groups. She sees the suit as an initiative by River Fields to block the East End bridge and throw downtown under the bus.

In a statement, she wrote: “It is very rare to find the National Trust advancing the interests of relatively few individuals when the outcome could have negative impacts on so many more structures and residents in urban areas close to the Ohio River, a resource that will become more and more valuable in this community’s future economic and civic success and survival.”