LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – In Indianapolis, trucks carrying hazardous materials are banned from passing through downtown. A similar prohibition quietly took effect last year for the main northern Kentucky interstate into Cincinnati.

But as construction continues on two Ohio River bridges in the Louisville area, Kentucky and Indiana transportation officials say there are no plans to require long-distance shipments of potentially flammable, poisonous and corrosive chemicals to avoid downtown.

Making a new East End Bridge, which will complete a long-awaited Interstate 265 bypass, a hazmat route has been discussed intermittently in planning the Ohio River Bridges Project. So far, however, the two states have avoided taking an official position.

In a 764-page environmental review published two years ago, the states and the Federal Highway Administration noted that providing a hazmat route was not “specified as a project need or justification” and deferred any decisions to local authorities.

“That's certainly something that may come up later, as we get past construction,” said Will Wingfield, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Transportation.

A spokesman for Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer and Jeffersonville Mayor Mike Moore said they weren't aware of any ongoing talks about a hazmat route. Moore said he would want to know specifics of any such proposal before commenting.

There have been “informal” discussions about designating the new eastern bypass for hazardous materials, said Jim Bottom, technological hazards coordinator for the Louisville/Jefferson County Emergency Management Agency.

Bottom said he favors a hazmat route away from downtown mainly because of the cluster of hospitals near the I-65 bend downtown known as “Hospital Curve.” Among them are the city's only two top-level trauma centers: University of Louisville and Kosair Children's hospitals.

A downtown spill could make it difficult to get patients to University Hospital and “take it out of play,” Bottom said.

“If you had a wreck there of hazardous materials, it would impact so many of our hospitals,” he said.

A route sending hazmat trucks across the new bridge between Prospect, Ky., and Utica, Ind., would lead to increased training and staffing needs for the Harrods Creek Fire Department, Chief Kevin Tyler said.

Tyler said there have been no talks about designating an eastern hazmat route since bridge construction began in 2013, but he added: “Realistically, do I see it happening? Yeah. But it hasn't been established by the state or the city.”

“It's a common sense thing,” he said. “Every major metropolitan city has a hazmat route.”

"Peace of mind"

Every day, unknown truckloads of hazardous materials travel through Louisville.

Carriers don't have to notify authorities along their routes, although most trucks are required to display placards identifying the types of materials being shipped.

A group of Western Kentucky University students, working with Jefferson County emergency management officials, set out to count those hazmat trucks at six locations in June and July of 2012. They monitored traffic for week-long periods at each site, including two downtown.

Their findings show that, every hour, nearly 14 hazmat vehicles traveled along I-65 downtown at “Hospital Curve,” although the traffic count likely was lower than normal because some heavy trucks were detoured due to lane restrictions on the Kennedy Bridge during the study period.

About 21 hazmat trucks passed through downtown every hour on I-64, skirting Louisville's waterfront and the heart of the central business district.

There were eight hazmat incidents on Louisville highways between 2004 and 2014, according to data compiled by the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. One incident, a July 2010 diesel fuel spill on the Kennedy Bridge, occurred near downtown, according to the agency.

But it's the possibility of a catastrophic incident that has worried Carl Kramer for decades. Kramer, former executive director of the Clark County Planning, Zoning and Building Commission, began advocating for a hazmat bypass in the 1990s during early discussions of the bridges project.

Besides the medical buildings downtown, Kramer said NuLu's growth should play a part in any decision about a hazmat route.

NuLu “was still in considerable economic straights back 15 to 20 years ago when we were debating this. That's become much more vibrant,” Kramer said.

Rebecca Matheny, executive director of the Louisville Downtown Partnership, declined to comment for this story, saying she needed more information about the tradeoffs of a hazmat bypass away from downtown.

In Indianapolis, establishing I-465 as a detour for hazmat shipments traveling through the has given fire officials “peace of mind” that trucks carrying those substances are avoiding densely populated parts of their city.

“You're still running through an inhabited area, but it's not like 15 feet from someone's front door,” said Capt. Fred Schwomeyer of the Indianapolis Fire Department.

Unintended consequences?

Federal regulations allow states and American Indian tribal governments to restrict hazardous materials to certain highway segments.

But those bypass routes must be supported by a “risk analysis” that shows that current roads are substantially riskier, the regulations state. States also should consider the area that would be affected by a release of hazardous materials, including schools, hospitals and senior-citizen living facilities.

In fact, Kentucky instituted a ban on hazmat trucks on I-75 heading into Cincinnati last summer because the area is heavily populated and includes a number of school zones and hospitals, said Chuck Wolfe, a Kentucky Transportation Cabinet spokesman.

An eastern bypass in Louisville would route hazmat trucks through a tunnel on the Kentucky approach to the bridge, and an area that the Coalition for the Advancement of Regional Transportation considers a threat to Louisville's drinking water.

The coalition has argued in court documents that the approach to the eastern bridge is close to a Louisville Water Co. water filtration system that could be contaminated.

If a hazmat bypass isn't established in Louisville, an informal one could develop.

With the addition of tolls of up to $12 on large trucks, the toll-free Sherman Minton and Clark Memorial bridges are expected to see an increase in heavy truck traffic – from roughly 8,500 trucks now to more than 19,000 by 2030, according to a WDRB analysis.

Trucking industry officials expect the I-64 Sherman Minton will absorb most of those trucks.

While I-65 may be safer once a new span is added next to the existing Kennedy Bridge, “trucks are going to bypass the bridge. The cost is not going to make sense,” said Jamie Fiepke, president of the Kentucky Motor Transport Association.

Fiepke said the Sherman Minton – a much closer bridge than the new eastern span for trucks traveling along I-65 – is “not going to be a bad option.”

Under that scenario, hazmat shipments could increase through some western Louisville and New Albany, Ind., area neighborhoods.

Kramer, the former Clark County official, said he hadn't thought about the unintended consequences of tolls on hazmat shipments – one more reason he said officials should consider the impact of the bridges project on hazmat issues now.

“It's worth discussing before the bridge opens, so we don't have to do it after the fact,” he said.

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