August 25, 2010

Game (inter)changer

Citizens denounce latest proposal to toll colossal bridges project

At a Prospect meeting hall last Thursday, the Louisville and Southern Indiana Bridges Authority placed the option of tolling a massive interchange in downtown Louisville squarely on the table to finance the Ohio River Bridges Project. Moments later, citizens condemned the proposal, renewed calls to scale down the two-bridge plan, and cited a recent cn|2 Politics poll showing only 14.5 percent support it.

“The poll clearly showed that 85.5 percent of Louisville voters, an astonishing majority, are against the current ($4.1 billion project), which is an oversized boondoggle that is bloated with pork and waste,” said Say NO to Bridge Tolls co-founder Shawn Reilly. “So, I am calling on this un-elected authority to recognize the overwhelming will of the people and downsize this project.”

Reilly was the first of 10 speakers to address the bi-state body during a public comment period. Only one spoke in favor of the project and was heckled.

Other remarks echoed Reilly’s proposal to divide the project into affordable phases and build the East End bridge first — without tolls.

The cn|2 poll found that half of likely Louisville voters support an eastern bridge-only solution while 17.3 percent favor only a downtown span.

J.C. Stites, co-founder of 8664, said, “The people of this community get it. They realize the East End bridge … will greatly reduce downtown traffic – 32,000 trucks that go through Spaghetti Junction every day.” Citing huge benefits including jobs and air quality, he urged the board to “divide the project and build the East End bridge now.”

“I’d like to appeal to all of you that less than 15 percent of the population of Louisville — and probably even lower in Indiana — feel that the two bridges in this one project is not a solution,” Stites said. “Now the question is, what do you all have the authority to do about it?”

The Bridges Authority website says it is not “charged with changing the project’s scope,” which is outlined in the Federal Highway Administration’s 2003-approved Record of Decision.

However, Kentucky law states, “The bi-state authority shall prepare a financial plan specifying the construction and financing parameters of the project.” Furthermore, the statute appears to permit “the amendment of the project or financial plan” with approval from the Kentucky Public Transportation Infrastructure Authority.

Nevertheless, the authority has never expressed any inclination to reduce or alter the plan.

Still, critics pin their hopes on a rising chorus of motley opponents.

Cherise Williams was one of four speakers in favor of public transit. But she’s willing to compromise.

“Conceding that the appointed decision-makers will move forward with building at least one bridge … I would ask that there be a push for only the East End bridge without tolls,” she said.

Williams also decried the proposed demolition and reconstruction of the downtown interchange where I-64, I-65 and I-71 converge and motorists may be tolled. “We need to leave Spaghetti Junction out of the plans for highway expansion,” she said. “We have too much to lose in our downtown (Waterfront) park, landmark-worthy buildings and urban neighborhoods.”

Project supporters insist nothing less than the $1.5 billion redesign of the junction coupled with a new bridge is required to solve safety and traffic problems downtown.

Stu Noland lamented the creation of a greater problem: the disfigurement of Louisville’s face for a century: “Our city will become unmarketable to the world. This will pull the plug on the brain drain in a way Louisville has never seen before.”

The following speaker, Larry Hausman, countered: “Let’s not accept arguments about aesthetics; let’s accept the real argument … in excess of 50,000 jobs would be created just by the construction of this project.” Shrieks of “lies!” from the audience induced him to abort. (The number is misleading inasmuch as it reflects annual jobs multiplied by 10 years.)

Independent mayoral candidate Jackie Green remarked, “This project is on the ropes,” and invited his absent competitors to join him in instead championing a world-class public transit system.

Republican Hal Heiner’s campaign manager, Joe Burgan, took notes throughout the meeting. Within hours, Heiner and Democrat Greg Fischer joined Green only in denouncing the tolling proposal.

Thursday night, the New Albany City Council certified, by resolution, public dissent that stunned some officials and sparked others to question at what level — and for whom — tolling this mega-project becomes politically toxic.