LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) Crews on July 23 started flattening long-abandoned buildings to make way for a wider interstate highway and begin the Ohio River bridges project that will create two new arteries connecting Kentucky and Indiana.
“We have moved this bridges project out of the discussion phase and into the action phase,” said Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, who led the applause as federal, state and local officials gathered to watch the start of demolition near Interstate 65.
A row of vacant buildings, which once churned out such products as elevators, electric motors and saw blades, will be razed as part of plans for a wider, redesigned I-65 that will carry traffic from the existing Kennedy Bridge, which will be converted to southbound use only.
A new bridge planned just east of the Kennedy Bridge will carry northbound I-65 traffic over the Ohio River.
The $2.6 billion project will build two new bridges, one in downtown Louisville and the other on the east side of the metropolitan area. It also will upgrade interchanges. The project won federal approval in June.
The previous owners of the property will pay for the environmental cleanup of the grounds that include contamination from heavy metals, Beshear said. Demolition work is expected to take about a month.
A cluster of the century-old buildings will be preserved for redevelopment, the governor said.
State officials are negotiating terms of a potential sale of the preserved buildings. The prospective buyer, which has not been identified, has submitted plans to redevelop the 1.5 acre tract near the city’s minor-league baseball stadium, which has spurred other development in the area.
Officials on both sides of the river are looking to the long-debated bridges project as a job creator that, when complete, will ease the area’s traffic congestion that became more snarled during a series of recent infrastructure woes.
“Just the construction of that alone is going to be a significant economic boost to our area,” said Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, who predicted the construction would put about 4,000 people to work.
Meanwhile, recent repairs to the Kennedy Bridge caused traffic tie-ups in Louisville and southern Indiana. The repairs ran into unexpected complications, testing the patience of commuters as crews reduced lanes on the bridge.
A short distance downriver, the Sherman Minton Bridge that also connects Louisville and southern Indiana was shut down for more than five months after a crack was found in load-bearing steel. The span was reopened in February following repairs.
Fischer said the recent problems with the bridges underscore why “we need this bridges project front and center.”
Beshear said the demolition work that began July 23 was “a very visible and tangible step that makes clear to both beleaguered commuters and eager business officials that the downtown crossing is going to happen.”
Officials began preparing the area’s commuters for more disruptions when the bridges project begins in earnest.
“We’re very sensitive to all of that,” the mayor said. “We’re going to do the best we can to remediate all of that.”
Meanwhile, the next mini-milestone on the project will occur across the river in Indiana.
Indiana officials are planning a late August groundbreaking on the first phase of the so-called East End bridge. It will consist of a road extension that ultimately will connect with the future Indiana State Road 265 approach to the East End Bridge.
Both states have chosen finalists for contracts to build the new bridges and plan to award the contracts before year’s end. Construction on the main crossings will begin in earnest in early 2013.
Under the bi-state agreement, Indiana will oversee construction of the East End Bridge between Utica, Ind., and Prospect, Ky., linking the Lee Hamilton Expressway in Indiana and the Gene Snyder Freeway in Kentucky. The bridge will complete a loop around the east side of the metropolitan area.
Kentucky will oversee construction of the downtown portion of the project — a new bridge, the reconfigured Kennedy Bridge and upgrades of interchanges on both sides of the river.