Part of a planned Interstate 69 Ohio River Crossing has now been finalized, but the design for the second part, linking Kentucky and Indiana over the Ohio River, has led to some controversy involving the lack of an environmentally conscious feature.
Groups in both states are concerned about the lack of access for cyclists and pedestrians, an omission project officials said is due to cost and practicality.
“It’s a step backwards, short-sighted planning and an archaic design out of the past,” said Gary Davis, community and government relations liaison for the nonprofit organization Indiana Trails. “This bridge plan, as far as the Midwest is concerned, stands out like a sore thumb.”
The I-69 Ohio River Crossing is a joint $1.2 billion effort between Kentucky and Indiana to connect I-69 in the two states through a new bridge that will replace the “Twin Bridges” of U.S. Route 41.
Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb has committed $200 million to the project.
The project will be completed in two parts, the first of which will be $229 million in I-69 improvements in Kentucky from Kentucky Route 425 in Henderson to U.S. Route 60.
The second phase will be the construction of a new tolled, four-lane bridge over the Ohio River and connections to existing roadways in both states. The second phase is estimated to cost $987 million.
The first phase has completed its last steps in the approval process, including a final environmental statement and record of decision, assessments required by the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act for federally funded projects.
The record of decision, the formal decision document that explains the basis for the project, allows state agencies to proceed with the design, land acquisition and construction of the project.
The ROD contains the basic plan for the bridge, but not its final design, the process of which is expected to begin in 2025. The project managers left open the potential for bicycle and pedestrian access across US 41 if local governments assume ownership of the bridge, a costly proposition that would leave them responsible for maintenance.
But the record I-69 crossing makes clear its designs for non-motorized users is limited to areas away from the crossing, including expanding paved shoulders to accommodate bicycles at overpass and underpass locations, adding some sidewalks and maintaining access to trails at either end of the crossing.
“No access is currently planned for pedestrians or cyclists on the new I-69 river crossing. There are no existing or planned pedestrian/bicycle facilities near the proposed bridge abutments. Without a place to walk or bike to, the significant, added costs are not practical. Adding a pedestrian/bicycle path would add approximately $30 million to the project cost,” I-69 Ohio River Crossing spokesperson Mindy Peterson told the Indiana Environmental Reporter.
During initial planning for the crossing, the Evansville-Vanderburgh County Area Plan Commission asked project officials to consider incorporating bicycle and pedestrian access.
“This would allow an interstate and regional connection between Evansville and Henderson for alternative modes of travel. With the magnitude of the bridge crossing project, now is the time to thoroughly explore the possibilities of also providing a bike/ped Ohio River crossing. Not to do so would be negligent of our duties to the citizens of the region,” the commission told project managers.
The Evansville Metropolitan Planning Organization has made long-term transportation and recreation-oriented plans that emphasize walking and cycling as viable and commonplace forms of transportation.
The city’s plan for an expansion of the Pigeon Creek Greenway would encircle the city with a trail, including areas near the Veterans Memorial Parkway Interchange, the northern most reach of the second phase of the I-69 Ohio River Crossing.
Had the crossing included non-motorized access in its plans, when completed, the Pigeon Creek Greenway could have allowed Evansville residents to reach the crossing from anywhere in the city, regardless of access to a motorized vehicle.
Opposition to the access came mainly from Kentucky officials, who argued that the distances from Henderson and Evansville to the bridges made residents unlikely to use the access.
“First, I do not see a good possibility of the existing US 41 bridges as a bike or walking alternative,” wrote Henderson Mayor Steve Austin in 2018. “There are no safe or direct connections for citizens on either side of the river for utilization. IF the bridges were closer to Henderson and Evansville and there were connectivity opportunities for citizens for walking or biking, I would feel differently. However, there is simply not. There would need to be miles of new walk-ways to connect for a use to become practical for walking/biking – and I just don’t see any citizens taking on that six or more mile journey to connect.”.
Henderson County Judge-Executive Brad Schneider agreed with the assessment.
The decision has vexed trail and cycling organizations, who say a lack of public transit and non-motorized access will greatly affect a growing number of health- and environment-conscious Hoosiers.
Currently, there is no regular public transportation service between Evansville and Henderson, and the nearest cyclist-friendly crossings across along the Indiana-Kentucky border are several bridges connecting Jeffersonville, Indiana and Louisville, Kentucky, more than 100 miles away.
“At this point, if people want to cross the Ohio River, they're going to have to either take a surfboard, or a paddle board or maybe scuba dive across the river,” Davis said.
The omission bucks the trend other interstate crossings in the Midwest have experienced, where non-motorized access was included from the beginning of project planning.
The $1 billion Interstate 74 River Bridge connecting Bettendorf, Iowa and Moline, Illinois will feature a 14-foot-wide multiuse path on one side of the bridge. The bridge will finish construction by late 2022.
In Michigan, the six-lane Gordie Howe International Bridge connecting Detroit and Windsor, Canada will feature a multiuse path for pedestrians and cyclists.
Cincinnati, Ohio has four bridges crossing the Ohio River into Kentucky that have bicycle and pedestrian access.
In Indiana, the Big Four Bridge, connecting Jeffersonville, Indiana and Louisville, Kentucky, and the Milton-Madison Bridge, connecting Milton, Kentucky and Madison, Indiana, have access for bicycles and pedestrians. Across the state, municipalities have built bridges across waterways with non-motorized access, like Lafayette-West Lafayette’s John T. Meyers Pedestrian Bridge.
Indiana Trails and other organizations said they will contact Gov. Holcomb and Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear to attempt to change the plan before the 2025 design date.
If that doesn’t work, the group said it will reach out to U.S. Department of Transportation Sec. Pete Buttigieg to see if the federal government is willing to intervene.
In an email to the Indiana Environmental Reporter, the DoT’s Federal Highway Administration said its influence is limited.
“The Federal Highway Administration provides input and technical assistance in the design and planning stage of the project (as well as in other stages). However, the bridge design is up to the state,” the agency said in an email.
Davis said the groups believe bicycle and pedestrian access is necessary and would benefit a multitude of Hoosiers and Kentuckians.
“This plan for the interstate 69 Bridge, which is a massive project, is a major step backwards in terms of bridge planning, and bridge design,” Davis said. “What [the groups] are proposing is not new, and it’s not rocket science at this point. What we're proposing has been done on interstate highway bridges around the country.”