SUNDAY EDITION | Aging Clark Memorial Bridge to see traffic spik - WDRB 41 Louisville News

SUNDAY EDITION | Aging Clark Memorial Bridge to see traffic spike in coming years as drivers avoid tolls

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Sidewalk closed on Clark Memorial Bridge (Chris Otts / WDRB) Sidewalk closed on Clark Memorial Bridge (Chris Otts / WDRB)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Kentucky and Indiana are pouring billions of dollars into new toll bridges across the Ohio River. Three years ago, the states spent millions strengthening the Sherman Minton Bridge. 

But among the likely results of the $2.3 billion bridges project is a spike in vehicles on an older span with narrow lanes in the heart of downtown Louisville: The Clark Memorial Bridge. 

With tolls placed on the Interstate 65 corridor – the Kennedy Bridge and the new crossing being erected next to it – analysts predict drivers will start using the Clark in increasing numbers. Tolls are set to start in 2016.

The 85-year-old Clark already handles the amount of traffic for which it was built and is considered “functionally obsolete” because its design is out of date. By 2030, however, as many as 32,000 cars and trucks are expected to cross the bridge daily – a nearly 72 percent increase from current levels.

Kentucky officials maintain the bridge is safe. Inspection reports show the span's overall score and ratings for its main elements have remained constant in recent years. Overall, the Clark is in “fair” condition.

“I think it'd be fine to handle the anticipated load,” said Andy Barber, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet's project manager for the new downtown bridge.

Barber said there are no plans to add weight restrictions to the Clark. As of last year, more than 2,000 trucks crossed the bridge each day, according to Kentucky Transportation Cabinet estimates.

The projections showing a huge increase in traffic on the Clark  come from a report released last year by a Kentucky-hired consultant. The study, which was needed for Kentucky to sell bonds for its part of the bridges project, predicted that the new tolls will cause traffic to actually drop on the I-65 corridor across the river and increase on the toll-free Minton (which carries I-64) and Clark bridges.

But Kentucky officials don't believe as much traffic will be diverted to the Clark as the traffic study suggests. Barber said the study presents a “conservative” picture for the benefit of investors evaluating whether the new bridges will generate enough toll revenue to repay construction debt.

“The numbers there are probably a little bit higher than what you're actually going to see materialize on the bridge,” Barber said

“Fair” condition

Kentucky owns and maintains the steel-truss Clark, or “Second Street Bridge,” which was last inspected in June as part of a review done every two years.

Bridge inspections evaluate three main elements – the superstructure, which supports the span's deck; the substructure, which includes abutments and piers; and the deck, or roadway.

The summer inspections rated the Clark's substructure and superstructure in “fair” condition, or one step above “poor,” and the deck in “good” condition, according to the reports obtained under the Kentucky Open Records Act.

At the same time, inspectors noted “large corrosion holes” in some bridge trusses, “misaligned” plates that could be a tripping hazard for pedestrians, broken bolts and rust throughout the bridge. In addition, the “paint system is failing over a large portion of the bridge,” the report found.

Kentucky's most recent highway plan includes $18 million to clean and paint the Clark during the 2014 fiscal year, which ended in June. But that work has been delayed so that it doesn't interfere with the construction of the bridges project, Barber said.

Barber couldn't say when the work on the Clark -- including some “structural repairs” – will be done.

A dramatic increase in traffic on an aging bridge like the Clark will likely require increased inspections and maintenance, said David Davidson, director of graduate engineering studies at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn.

While the Depression-era Clark is nearing the “end of its useful life,” Davidson said, he noted examples of much older bridges still in use – such as the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge in Cincinnati that dates from 1866.

“If you take care of them and take care of the maintenance that's needed, they can last a long time,” he said.

“Enormous” use

For years, the Clark was the only span for cyclists and pedestrians between Louisville and Clark County, Ind. The Big Four Bridge at Waterfront Park now provides a similar route farther east.

But commuting cyclists and walkers still use the Clark.

“It gets just an enormous amount of use by downtown office workers – for exercise, people go down there on their lunch hour,” said Rebecca Matheny, executive director of the Louisville Downtown Partnership.

The sidewalks on the bridge have been officially closed since July because of some work on the Indiana approach that is still not complete. Signs at the base of the bridge on the Kentucky side say the paths are closed, but walkers can easily maneuver around them, as two were seen doing Friday afternoon.

The sidewalks are actually blocked at the base of the bridge in Indiana.

Like Barber, Matheny said she's skeptical that the predicted increases in traffic on the Clark will occur.  But, she said, “If we see a very significant increase in car traffic for a.m. and p.m. peaks, we'd really need to take a better look at the pedestrian crossings across Main (Street) and across Second (Street).”

Those crossings have been the site of two high-profile collisions involving pedestrians this year. In June, a cement truck struck and killed a 24-year-old Humana worker at the base of the bridge.

Greater Louisville Inc., the metro area chamber of commerce, and One Southern Indiana, the chamber for Clark and Floyd counties, have called for restrictions on commercial vehicles on the Clark once tolling starts. In August, GLI board chairman Kerry Stemler likened the bridge to a “city street.”

The bridge has four lanes – each 9 ½-feet wide, according to the Transportation Cabinet. The lanes are so narrow that larger cars can be forced to travel outside their lanes, said Tricia Hussung, who drives the Clark twice a day from her home in Jeffersonville.

Hussung, a marketing copywriter who works at The Learning House in downtown Louisville, said she probably will continue to drive the Clark in the morning once tolling starts but plans to take the new I-65 northbound toll bridge home.

“There's nothing worse,” she said, “than sitting on the tiny, two-lane bridge, and waiting.”

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