LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – In April 2013, with construction about to start on new Ohio River bridges, inspectors for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet took a closer look at a 51-year-old overpass carrying Interstate 264 in western Louisville.

They found the roadway above Northwestern Parkway in “serious” condition and recommended in an internal report that the state replace the entire structure, especially in light of the fact that “the Ohio River Bridges Project is anticipated to substantially increase the traffic across the bridge for an extended period of time.”

The ramp illustrates a little-discussed effect of the $2.3 billion bridges project. Kentucky and Indiana are spending billions to build and repair three bridges between Louisville and Clark County, Ind. – then charging tolls to use them – so most drivers are expected to choose toll-free routes instead.

Tolls of $2 to $12 on the I-65 Lincoln and Kennedy bridges, and an eastern span between Utica, Ind., and Prospect, Ky., are set to start by the end of the year.

In response, a consultant hired by Kentucky predicts that traffic will rise sharply in the coming decades on the toll-free Sherman Minton Bridge that carries I-64. By 2030, an estimated 121,000 vehicles will use the 54-year-old Minton each day – an increase of 38 percent – while the I-65 bridges are set to see less traffic than current levels.

But besides the Minton, dozens of nearby overpasses and ramps on both sides of the river also are projected to carry more traffic. Those include some structures downgraded by inspectors in recent years to “poor” condition, according to a WDRB News analysis of federal data and inspection reports obtained under state public records laws.

Among them is a section of I-64 in downtown Louisville above River Road and Waterfront Park’s Great Lawn that carries about 106,000 cars and trucks per day.

Last summer, inspectors rated the overpasses as “poor” and recommended the state fix cracks, repair spalled concrete and clean drains that are leading to the “deterioration of the superstructure and substructure units,” according to an inspection report.

By 2034, traffic on those roads is expected to climb by 22 percent, to 129,450 vehicles per day, according to Kentucky Transportation Cabinet’s estimates.

“Talking to a lot of people that I know, they said they’re going to change their route of going to Indiana and coming around the Sherman Minton and ride all the way around to avoid paying a toll,” said Natalie Neil, who lives in the Shawnee/Chickasaw neighborhood in western Louisville.

Neil said she uses the Minton twice a day for trips to New Albany. More traffic on the bridge is troubling, she said, because there’s “a lot of increase already.”

“Poor” I-64 overpasses

Officials in Kentucky and Indiana insist the overpasses and ramps near the Minton are safe and will be closely monitored once tolling begins.

Both states already inspect interstate bridges at least every other year. Inspectors 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 overall health of a bridge is based on the substructure and superstructure -- the parts that in essence hold up the span.

WDRB reviewed the most recent inspection reports for the overpasses closest to the Minton on both sides of the river and found:

  • In Kentucky, there are nine overpasses on I-64 between downtown and the Minton. Three of these, or one-third, are in “poor” condition – meaning they have “deterioration” or “advanced section loss.” The rest are in “satisfactory” and “fair” condition.
  • The section of I-264 closest to the Minton includes 29 overpasses. Three have elements in “poor” condition – the ramp over Northwestern Parkway that is closed and under repair; an overpass over Bank Street in the Portland neighborhood; and an overpass south of Camp Ground Road.
  • None of the overpasses on I-64 between the Minton and I-265 in Indiana are in “poor” condition, while one is listed as “fair.”


Inspection data for overpasses expected to see increased traffic

Traffic on those structures in Floyd County is expected to increase by as much as 118 percent in the coming decades. Indiana plans maintenance and repair work on four of the overpasses before 2018, according to the state.

The state also aims to paint and maintain the Sherman Minton Bridge within the next four years, said Will Wingfield, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Transportation. The Minton was closed for about five months in 2011 and 2012 to fix a crack in a load-bearing beam. 

In all, Wingfield said, the state is investing more than $3 billion in bridge and pavement work in the next five years.

There’s no reason for motorists to be concerned about the condition of overpasses set for more traffic, Wingfield said.

“I think it’s important to remember that this project gives drivers choice,” he said. “So if they have a concern about I-64 – the traffic or whatever – they have other choices that were not there previously.”

In Kentucky, the $2 million replacement of the I-264 ramp above Northwestern Parkway was funded in the state’s recently approved highway plan. There are no other interstate bridges in Jefferson County scheduled to be replaced over the next six years.

The predictions of traffic increases on the Minton, as well as on the Clark Memorial Bridge, are from a 2013 study for Kentucky by Boston-based consultant Steer Davies Gleave. The report was done prior to the sale of construction bonds for the project later that year.

Those estimates were conservative and meant to give bond buyers “more comfort” about toll revenue, said Andy Barber, a deputy Kentucky highway engineer and the state’s bridges project manager.

Barber acknowledged that some overpasses are rated as “poor” but maintains they’re safe.

“While those ratings are what they are now, we’re monitoring and noting when repairs, if needed, will be done,” Barber said.

He also noted that the bridges project’s reconstruction of Spaghetti Junction, where I-64, I-65 and I-71 meet downtown, demolished about 40 overpasses that were in deteriorating condition.

“We’re going to see safer, better means of getting across the Ohio River than we’ve ever had before,” Barber said.

Kentucky and Indiana received federal approval in 2012 to toll I-65, clearing the way to charge drivers on the two interstate bridges along that corridor, as well as the new eastern span that’s not part of the interstate system.

The clearance came despite opposition to various toll plans from at least 10 local governments in Kentucky and Southern Indiana, including the Louisville Metro Council and councils in New Albany and Jeffersonville.

Opponents of tolling interstates often cite traffic diversion as a side effect of tolls and rate hikes.

“Tolls are often easily evaded, usually by motorists who are using an alternative route that unfortunately was not built to handle the level and type of traffic experienced due to that toll evasion,” said Stephanie Kane, spokeswoman for the Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates.

After reviewing projections showing increased traffic on the Minton, she said ambulances and other first responders could face delays getting across the river on I-64.

With the Minton remaining toll-free, traffic passing through New Albany is expected to double in the decades to come. Mayor Jeff Gahan did not return a phone message seeking comment, but council president Patrick McLaughlin said “it’s something that’s been constantly on our radar.”

McLaughlin stopped short of agreeing that traffic will rise at the levels predicted by INDOT, but he said any increase could give the city an economic boost.

“When trying to judge human nature,” he said, “no one really knows how that’s going to pan out.”

Copyright 2016 WDRB News. All rights reserved.