LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – For more than a decade, elected leaders in Louisville and Southern Indiana have urged Norfolk Southern Corp. to consider opening part of the K&I Bridge over the Ohio River to walkers and cyclists.
They’ve written letters, organized meetings, passed resolutions, cajoled, implored and even threatened to condemn the railroad bridge that runs between Louisville’s Portland neighborhood and New Albany, Ind.
Officials view the crossing as the ideal western link in a 13-mile trail that would connect both sides of the river, complementing a larger 100-mile Louisville Loop stretching across parks and neighborhoods in Jefferson County.
Despite that pressure, Norfolk Southern has refused to budge from its longstanding concerns that letting people on the K&I would lead to safety risks and liability.
But Greater Louisville Inc. is making a new push to highlight the bridge’s role in completing an urban trail system that “has the potential to become truly regional.”
GLI, the Louisville-area chamber of commerce, recently listed pedestrian access to the K&I bridge among the organization’s legislative priorities for 2016.
GLI said its goal is to “identify impediments, incentives and other remedies to permit pedestrians back on the K&I bridge, allowing full completion of a pedestrian loop."
Spokeswoman Alison Brotzge-Elder would say only that the bridge is “of interest” to the chamber’s policy committee. She declined to elaborate.
Tierra Kavanaugh Wayne, chairwoman of GLI’s public policy committee, did not return phone calls seeking comment. Louisville businessman Rich Gimmel, who served on the group when the agenda was created last year, said opening the K&I would have “real advantages.”
“You now have one in the east end in the Big Four Bridge,” Gimmel said. “I think there are some real opportunities and possibilities there if you open it up, at least as a pedestrian bridge.”
Under the plan long envisioned by local officials, the K&I would connect the Kentuckiana River Trail in Louisville and the Ohio River Greenway in Clark and Floyd counties in Indiana. The bridge has unused paths on both sides of the train tracks, and even automobiles traveled the span until the late 1970s.
Norfolk Southern operates trains on rail lines next to mixed-used paths, or “rails with trails,” in other states, according to Federal Highway Administration data. But the railroad has little interest in changing how the K&I is used, spokesman Dave Pidgeon said.
"Norfolk Southern's K & I Bridge exists today for a single purpose -- to provide safe transport for freight trains over the Ohio River,” Pidgeon said in a statement. “NS generally does not support recreational trails next to active rail lines because of serious safety concerns, and we remain focused on providing safe, efficient and reliable freight transportation to our customers in Louisville and southern Indiana."
The railroad acknowledges that some want the span open to the public, but “ultimately the K&I Bridge is privately owned and operated for the single purpose of safely moving freight trains which carry ... both hazmat and non-hazmat cargo,” Pidgeon said. “We not only have safety concerns about public access along active right-of-way but also serious, prohibitive concerns about security and liability.”
But despite the railroad’s concern, laws in Kentucky and Indiana generally protect property owners if someone is injured while using a recreational trail.
David Karem, president of the Waterfront Development Corp., said local officials’ efforts have met with “complete resistance” from Norfolk Southern, even as they have tried to ease the railroad’s concerns about liability.
Still, Karem and others believe that it’s only a matter of time before pedestrians are allowed on the K&I.
“In my mind, there’s no question but ultimately that bridge is going to be used for pedestrian (and) bicycle connection. I just think it’s so utterly logical and there’s so much momentum going in that direction,” Karem said. “There’s got to be a way.”
Public officials have pressured the railroad for years, repeatedly noting in letters to Norfolk Southern executives that the K&I is the obvious western link for the river trails.
The former automobile path on the bridge is the “appropriate connection,” then-Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson wrote in a letter to the railroad in January 2006, according to documents reviewed by WDRB News.
“It is our hope that Norfolk & Southern can be of assistance in making this portion of the bridge available…” Abramson wrote. “Metro Louisville is committed to assuring Norfolk & Southern that this can be accomplished in a safe manner.”
Former Jeffersonville, Ind., Mayor Rob Waiz and then-New Albany Councilman Steve Price had written similar letters a month before. Later in 2006, U.S. Reps. Anne Northup of Kentucky and Mike Sodrel of Indiana joined Abramson, Waiz and former New Albany Mayor James Garner in a letter to Wick Moorman, Norfolk’s chairman, president and CEO, asking to use the paths next to the railway.
“Dozens of active railroad bridges share pathways with non-vehicular traffic on Greenways Trails around the country, and we believe that approach will work in our region as well,” they wrote.
Those efforts failed to convince the railroad. Louisville officials then considered using eminent domain to acquire an easement on the portion of the bridge not being used.
In 2008, Metro government sparred with Norfolk Southern over whether the bridge could be condemned, documents show. Then-Assistant Jefferson County Attorney William T. Warner argued in a letter that city law allowed it, but a railroad lawyer disagreed.
Thomas W. Ambler, general attorney for Norfolk Southern, countered that federal law prohibits any condemnation.
“Please instruct your employees and any appraisers that they should not attempt to enter this bridge,” Ambler wrote.
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer “fully supports” the effort to allow pedestrians on the K&I, he wrote in a 2013 letter to the Ohio River Greenway Commission. A Fischer spokesman did not respond to a request for comment last week.
River trails advance
Meanwhile, Louisville and Southern Indiana continue to add recreational paths along the river.
The Big Four Bridge, a former railroad span, opened in 2013 to pedestrians and cyclists and has drawn more than 2 million visitors and 100,000 bicycles, according to Karem’s estimates.
Indiana plans to build nearly two more miles of the Greenway this year, including a section in New Albany that would lead “to the doorstep of the K&I,” said Shaunna Graf, project director of the Ohio River Greenway Commission. Once that work is done, the trail would have about a half-mile of paths to complete.
Graf said preparing the K&I for pedestrian access would avoid a significant cost associated with the Big Four Bridge, which required elevated access ramps to the converted rail deck above the river. The K&I is essentially at street level and wouldn’t require similar ramps, Graf said.
“Having it open would do things for this portion of New Albany and Louisville in the same way that it did for the Big Four Bridge in terms of economic development,” she said.
But the K&I is “not a priority” for One Southern Indiana, the chamber of commerce for Clark and Floyd counties, and isn’t included in its advocacy agenda, said Wendy Dant Chesser, the chamber’s president and CEO.
Dant Chesser said she would like to see a loop across the river completed, but that it’s important to remember that Norfolk Southern owns the bridge.
“We have to approach this as any public project that would want access to private property,” she said. “So it has to be done with respect and the interest of the owner in mind.”
‘A doable project’
Recreational paths next to active train lines are on the rise in the U.S., increasing 260 percent from 2000 to 2013, according to a report by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.
Large railroads — such as Norfolk Southern and CSX that run trains in the Louisville area -- generally continue to oppose the trails, while smaller railroads have been more receptive, the Washington, D.C.-based conservancy found.
But there are examples of big railroads signing off on trails adjacent to their freight lines, including on bridges. In Memphis, Tenn., the Harahan Bridge over the Mississippi River is scheduled to open a pedestrian path later this year.
Union Pacific Railroad, which uses the bridge owned by Memphis, was initially opposed to the path but ultimately agreed to the pedestrian access, said Jeff DeGraff, a railroad spokesman.
DeGraff said the pedestrian lane will have a special fence that can’t be climbed and also protects cyclists and walkers from any debris from passing trains.
“We were able to come to an agreement with several of the safety requirements that we had in order to make sure that we could continuing operating safely and that this wouldn’t have an impact on our operations,” he said.
Norfolk Southern owns seven rail corridors next to mixed-use paths, according to federal data. Among them is a line that runs along the Schuylkill River Trail between Philadelphia and Pottsville, Pa.
Robert Folwell, trails project manager for the Schuylkill River Greenway Association, said he’s not aware of any concerns raised by the railroad about the trail that is “very close to the rail line” -- about 20 feet in places – and separated by a chain-link fence.
Pidgeon, the Norfolk Southern spokesman, declined to discuss any safety issues on the railroad’s lines next to mixed-use paths. He also declined to directly address research by Rails-to-Trails that identified only one death in recent decades involving a person using a trail near train tracks.
In a separate report, researchers with the U.S. Department of Transportation found one case of a claim involving a rail-with-trail.
“The railroad was held harmless from any liability for the accident through the terms of its indemnification agreement,” the report says.
To buttress Norfolk Southern’s safety concerns, Pidgeon cited statistics showing that as of last October, 11 people had been killed in Indiana, and 10 in Kentucky, while trespassing on railroad property in 2015.
He didn’t elaborate, but those statistics apparently refer to deaths involving tracks that can accessed on foot, or at pedestrian-vehicle railroad crossings.
Bill Hughes, a former Norfolk Southern employee who worked on grade crossing and trespassing issues, said railroads understandably want to avoid lawsuits involving people who are injured or killed while trespassing.
But Hughes, who is familiar with the K&I Bridge proposal, said he believes the project could satisfy Norfolk Southern’s concerns by building a fence, patrolling the bridge and adding emergency telephones on the span.
“This is a doable project,” he said. “It was when I worked for them, and it still is.”
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