LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – After more than a decade of studies and review, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has formally selected a 35-acre site off Brownsboro Road for a new VA hospital.

VA Secretary David J. Shulkin signed the federal Record of Decision on Oct. 12, and it was made public Friday, affirming the U.S. government’s choice for the hospital that would replace the aging Robley Rex VA Medical Center on Zorn Avenue.

In issuing his decision, however, Shulkin ordered that a proposed regional office building for the Veterans Benefits Administration not be added to the site, and that a smaller parking garage be built.

The Brownsboro Road site has been controversial, with neighbors concerned about increased traffic at the property near the Watterson Expressway. In fact, the "overwhelming majority" of people opposed that location, according to the 24-page decision.

But it determined that the property’s advantages “outweigh its proximity to adjacent residences” and promised to push for potential transportation changes, including widening Brownsboro Road to five lanes and adding more lanes to Herr Lane to better connect U.S. 42 and Westport Road.

The VA also suggests that the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet may want to build an Interstate 71 interchange at the U.S. 42 underpass or add a flyover ramp between Brownsboro Road and I-264 West. 

VA spokeswoman Judy Williams said the decision clears the way for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to start preparing construction documents. The project will include a 104-bed hospital, 2,600 parking spots other infrastructure such a new laundry facility, sidewalks and landscaping.

The VA bought the suburban site – an empty field along the Watterson at the U.S. 42/Brownsboro Road exit – in 2012 for $12.9 million from a company controlled by Louisville private equity investor Jonathan Blue.

The record of decision caps a process that has also seen other groups, including local governments, propose sites for the replacement hospital.

The hospital, estimated to cost $925 million, has been in the works since 2006. It was last estimated to open by 2023 or 2024.

Williams declined to provide an updated timeline on Friday, saying it is "dependent upon when full funding for the project is received."

Controversial since the start

Louisville officials including former Mayor Jerry Abramson and former University of Louisville President James Ramsey originally pushed for the new facility to be located in the city’s medical district downtown.

But the VA said it wanted an un-built “greenfield” site that would make construction less costly and complicated.

But the VA may have paid $3 million too much for the Brownsboro site, the agency's inspector general concluded in a 2015 report.

The report said the VA failed to reconcile differences between two appraisals of the site performed by the same appraiser -- instead, accepting the later one with a higher value, $12.9 million.

In recent years there have been new efforts to get the VA to reconsider its decision given traffic concerns in the already congested suburban corridor.

"The VA has control of the property, you know, when and where they want to move is up to them," Fischer told reporters Friday. "Now, they listen to citizens obviously. ... They're very sensitive to that, so the next move will be up to them."

Louisville Metro Council member Angela Leet, whose district includes the site and has announced she is running for Louisville Mayor, also has been a critic of the plan, arguing instead for the facility to be built in west Louisville.

Among those in opposition to the Brownsboro Road site is Grow Smart Louisville, which preferred that a new hospital be built downtown. The group’s president, Eric Gunderson, said he blames elected officials and business leaders for failing to intervene.

“I’ve been completely confused as to why people who could have and should have stepped up to prevent this from happening have been silent,” he said. “…I hope now that people see that this is a reality, that it could potentially happen – because I do think that a lot of people thought that the VA would come to its senses and realize this was a bad choice for this facility.”  

Gunderson his group plans to file a lawsuit seeking an injunction that would stop the project.

Denver-based Catholic Health Initiatives, which owns Jewish Hospital parent KentuckyOne Health, put the downtown hospital up for sale earlier this year as part of a plan to divest most of its Louisville facilities. No buyer has been named.

U.S. Senate Maj. Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, has routinely deferred to the VA on the hospital's location but criticized the agency for mismanaging the project, delaying its construction by years.

McConnell issued a statement Friday:

"I have long been a major advocate for a new VA medical center in Louisville, and helped secure the initial funds for the project. Our veterans who have served our country so bravely deserve to receive quality health care in a new, modern facility and they have been waiting since 2006 for this medical center to be built. That is way too long. Today’s announcement moves us one step closer. It’s time to build the new facility.” - Sen. Maj. Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky

U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Louisville, said in a emailed statement that he's glad the VA's "thorough review process" is complete. 

Since helping secure funding for this project nearly a decade ago, my two main priorities have been ensuring that area veterans will be able to benefit from the state-of-the-art hospital as soon as possible, and that Louisville residents have their voices fully heard at every step. I’m glad that this thorough review process has been completed and I look forward to continuing to work with all the stakeholders as this important project finally moves forward. - U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Louisville

Greater Louisville Inc., the metro chamber of commerce, said in a prepared statement that it's past time for the hospital to be built. 

The Veterans in our community have been waiting for more than 10 years for a new medical facility. Now that a location is officially chosen, we encourage the Veterans Affairs department to start construction immediately. Let's work together in delivering the quality access and facilities our Veterans deserve and need. - Kent Oyler, president & CEO of Greater Louisville Inc.

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