May 12, 2010

A bridge too short

A lack of financing and will hampers sensible approach to bridge building

At last week’s meeting of the Louisville-Southern Indiana Bridges Authority, the name of the game was sports.

“I’d characterize the laying of groundwork (for the project) as spring training, if you will,” says Authority Executive Director Steve Schultz. “People will say three months is a lot of time for spring training, but we’ve had a lot of issues to work through. It’s been very productive, but I think a new season is about to begin.”

Unfortunately, the team won’t be playing ball any time soon, as the spring training season for the $4.1 billion Ohio River Bridges Project has been going on for closer to three decades, with no financing plan in place as of yet. With federal and state transportation money only able to cover a fraction of the project’s overall cost, the authority remains committed to “any and all options” with which to finance the project, including tolls.

In the span of their nearly two-hour meeting — which featured silent protestors sitting in the audience holding “Save Louisville” signs — the authority played a game of musical chairs, replacing outgoing Chairman Joe Prather with existing-member Charles Buddeke, as well as welcoming Lexington banker Luther Deaton Jr. into their fold.

They also trotted out two of the project’s development managers, who detailed cost-saving measures they’ve undertaken that tweak the project as-is. The most ridiculous one involves the downtown stretch of I-64, which project manager John Sacksteder says would raise the elevation of the downtown stretch of I-64 so as to “expand the viewing threshold,” thereby creating the illusion of a smaller concrete footprint.

Although Sacksteder says this would save $24 million toward the overall cost, it remains a drop in the bucket compared to the biggest possible financial tweak they could make, which, according to Schultz, just isn’t in the cards.

“When it comes to defining the project, the project has been defined for us,” he says. “It’s not within our scope to change the perimeters of the project, which has been established by the 2003 record of decision. Our job is to find a way to pay for it.”

That “record of decision” Schultz cites? It’s basically the blueprint — a playbook, if you will — for the ORBP that Schultz, Sacksteder & Co. must adhere to as they attempt to secure billions of non-existent dollars in financing. From this lone document springs forth every component, from the necessity of a two-bridge solution to how best to mitigate the project’s environmental impact on near-site neighborhoods.

Yet if what other communities have done under similar circumstances bears any mention, then dogmatic adherence to records of decision might be why our attempts at bridge building are floundering.

In the mid-1990s, St. Louis found itself in a familiar pickle: As downtown traffic across the Mississippi River became unbearable in light of regional growth patterns, the city knew it would need to build at least one new cross-river bridge to alleviate growing automotive congestion. A Missouri-Illinois bi-state bridges authority was formed to tackle this problem.

It wasn’t long, however, before the Midwestern authority hit a major roadblock. Within a decade, the cost of their two-bridge solution had ballooned from a few hundred million dollars to more than $2 billion, which neither state could afford. Instead of advocating tolling or Wall Street-engineered debt-financing schemes, the authority did something unheard-of by ORBP standards.

“We went back to the drawing board to look for alternatives,” says Mississippi River Bridge Director Greg Horn. “We came up with a bunch of different concepts, looked at public-private partnerships, which included inviting some giant conglomerate in to operate the tolls, neither of which was very popular.”

In the end, Horn, a 26-year veteran of the Missouri Department of Transportation, says the authority changed its record of decision. Since doing so, they’ve been able to tackle the project piece-meal and are now under construction on a one-bridge solution. It’s a kind of “build-as-you-go” approach that has saved both states $1.4 billion.

“There’s little point in having a record of decision if you can’t afford it,” Horn says. “You might as well not have one at all if you can’t pay for it, the end result would be the same: You get nothing done.”

Horn says the solitary, four-lane Mississippi River Bridge will meet their original traffic alleviation goals within 20 years, and attributes its ongoing construction to the ability of civic leaders to reduce the project’s size by altering the record of decision.

“Oh, it was very controversial at the time,” adds Horn. “There were many people who would say that if we went back to the decision at all then we’d threaten the project itself. In our case, that simply wasn’t true.”

Getting back to our neck of the woods (and our fondness for sports clichés), this is the equivalent of a Hail Mary pass: It’s a long shot, but given the limited fiscal means of Kentuckiana, it might be the only way to win the game.

According to the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet’s six-year highway plan, of the 55 separate components that make up the bridges project, only 30 components have a source of stable state or federal funding. The remaining 25 have been dubbed “IF,” which stands for Innovative Financing, meaning anything from tolls to an increase in the gas tax to privately financed loan wizardry — essentially because they haven’t found a way to pay for it yet.

But since tolling existing bridges — an idea popular within the authority — would require a rare form of federal approval to enact, a Hail Mary might be all they’ve got.