LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – As Kentucky and Indiana wrestled with the cost of the Ohio River Bridges Project, leaders in both states struck a deal in 2011 that changed the project’s size in a bid to save money.

The modified plan called for rebuilding the tangled Spaghetti Junction in its existing footprint, sparing parts of Butchertown that would have been razed to make room for the interchange. Some neighborhood residents praised the move to lessen the impact east of downtown.

The design has untangled nerve-wracking stretches of highway, given vehicles protected lanes and ramps for merging and replaced aging overpasses, including dozens that didn’t meet modern standards.

But the new junction also has changed the downtown landscape, encroaching toward Louisville Slugger Field and claiming previously pristine parts of Waterfront Park. A wider Interstate 65 has resulted in underpasses on Jefferson and Market streets twice as wide as before.  

Even at a brisk pace, it can take nearly two minutes to walk under the expanded Interstate 65 on Jefferson between Jackson and Preston streets. Turn south at Preston and it’s a longer walk beneath the roadway.

“It’s the worst example of urban design I have seen in a long time,” Bill Weyland, a Louisville developer, said of the area near Jefferson and Preston, which he compares to a tunnel. “I am very disappointed it’s turned out this way.”

One reason: The roadways meet at what Weyland calls a “prominent gateway” to downtown’s medical district and the University of Louisville’s Nucleus office building.

Weyland predicts the wider I-65 will effectively divide the NuLu district and other parts east of downtown from the central business district. But he said those divisions could result in positive changes, such as increased service on TARC’s electric ZeroBus routes.

In pushing for a new Spaghetti Junction, transportation and political leaders touted the need for a safer interchange.

Workers have replaced aging ramps and overpasses in the junction during construction. In 2015, more than 40 percent of the overpasses in the area were “structurally deficient,” according to the state. A deficient bridge has at least one major supporting element rated in poor condition.

“What the bridges project has done is taken a lot of those ‘structurally deficient’ bridges offline,” said Andy Barber, a deputy Kentucky highway engineer and the state’s project manager.

Barber said about 40 new bridges and overpasses have been added downtown. The Kennedy Bridge also is getting $22 million million in repairs, which transportation officials say will strengthen the 52-year-old span and add decades of added service.

“One of the primary tenets of the Ohio River Bridges Project was increased safety and so we’re going to see safer, better means of getting across the Ohio River than we’ve ever had before,” Barber said.

In the junction, where interstates 64, 65 and 71 meet east of downtown, engineers sought to reduce or eliminate spots where drivers were forced to quickly merge.

Under the new design, for example, drivers heading south on I-71 will access I-65 North via a ramp that no longer require swinging south before merging onto the northbound Lincoln Bridge. On I-64 West, the split to I-65 will happen closer to Story Avenue.

The additional concrete doesn’t bother Patrick Yates, a wealth adviser for Raymond James who has worked downtown for 26 years. He said he routinely attends Waterfront Wednesday concerts at Waterfront Park and rides his bicycle downtown.

He envisions the bridges project as a way to help grow the region.

“Louisville has been so far behind in growing for so many years that we need to bring this city in to this century and grow for us to be a major metropolitan area,” Yates said.

Others view the junction as a missed opportunity. Despite grassroots and some support in local government, the “8664” campaign to build only an eastern bridge and turn I-64 downtown into a surface-level parkway never gained mainstream political traction.

The design of the downtown part of the project could have been “greener. It could have been more like San Francisco or Portland,” said John I. Gilderbloom, a professor of urban and public affairs at U of L.

“It still seems like the ‘spaghetti’ is still there,” he said.  “And this whole argument that the ‘spaghetti’ would be gone and it would be straight and easy connectivity – I don’t see it yet.”

Adding to Waterfront Park?

The Lincoln Bridge, which opened to traffic late last year, cuts through Waterfront Park just east of the Kennedy Bridge. Other ramps and overpasses also loom closer.

The bridges project left other parts of the award-winning park untouched, including the Great Lawn. Earlier plans had suggested widening I-64 over the lawn.

Alan Silva, who moved to Louisville from Cleveland about two months ago, said the Lincoln Bridge and the new junction don’t detract from the park.

“When my wife and I visited, I think we really kind of enjoyed the hustle and bustle of downtown right here next to a green space,” he said while visiting the park last week. “It kind of gives it much more of like a big city feel.”

Gary Pepper, the Waterfront Development Corp.’s park manager, said work will begin by September to clean up and restore the area under I-65 that was disrupted during construction. Plans call for new sidewalks, lighting and parking areas.

Park officials also say they are negotiating with Walsh Construction Co., which is building the downtown bridge and nearby roadways, to acquire a platform that extends into the river. The company has used it as a staging area during bridge work.

“Their original contract was to restore it to its original design, but there’s an opportunity now to extend that out to a temporary wharf … that they’ve built out into the water,” Pepper said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers still must approve a permit for the expansion, which would add an area about 300-feet-by-100-feet at the river’s edge, Pepper said.

“We’ll gain probably maybe half an acre of usable space which is now out in the river, and it provides some really strong views up and down the river and gives us a really nice shaded area for people to go and picnic and things like that,” he said.

Aesthetics plan being finished

In the coming months, crews also are expected to finish a series of lighting improvements, monuments and pedestrian plazas near the junction and new roadways in Louisville.

Kentucky and Indiana approved the aesthetics plan for downtown and Jeffersonville, Ind., prior to the start of construction – a measure meant to meet historic preservation and other requirements.

It includes lights in underpasses on Jefferson and Market streets and two plazas on River Road – at Preston Street near Slugger Field, and at Witherspoon Street across from the park. Work on the plazas is to start soon, said Richard Sutherland, the project’s aesthetics and enhancement manager.

“I think all that stuff will be done by early December,” he said. “Everything will be done.”

The work on the Market Street underpass is important to re-connecting NuLu with downtown, said Gill Holland, president of the NuLu Business Association’s board of directors.

Holland said it’s too early to comment in detail about the project’s impact on NuLu because the project is not complete.

“Bridges are supposed to connect us but often the overpasses end up dividing us,” he said. “I would say that the good thing is we got NuLu to a sustainable point before that extension of the overpass went in.”

“If NuLu was eight years ago and that bridge was as wide as it is now,” he said, “that would be a much more imposing barrier to the East Market District.”

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