Billboards lineup just north of the U.S. 41 Twin Bridges in Henderson, Ky. Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018. A proposed I-69 bridge crossing the Ohio River would divert a large amount of traffic away from U.S. 41.  Staff photo by Jake Crandall
Billboards lineup just north of the U.S. 41 Twin Bridges in Henderson, Ky. Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018. A proposed I-69 bridge crossing the Ohio River would divert a large amount of traffic away from U.S. 41. Staff photo by Jake Crandall
EVANSVILLE — Words from Indiana's governor last week left local officials feeling better than ever about prospects for a new Ohio River crossing.

Gov. Eric Holcomb, during his annual State of the State address, cited Indiana's agreement with Kentucky on a preferred route for the tolled, four-lane Interstate 69 bridge. The expected cost is $1.5 billion.

He described the I-69 project as a "transformational effort" that shows job creators "Indiana will continue to offer best-in-class infrastructure for generations to come.”

Following Holcomb's remarks, the Indiana Department of Transportation even attached a timeline to the process.

With the completion of Interstate 69 between Martinsville and Indianapolis expected by the end of 2024, preconstruction activity on the bridge project could start in 2025, according to INDOT.

Some preconstruction work is already underway on the Kentucky side, where a new-terrain road will connect the new bridge to I-69 south of Henderson.

Two federal documents required for bridge construction to begin, a Final Environmental Impact Statement and Record of Decision, are expected to be filed this year.

Business and government leaders in both states said the primetime mention of an I-69 bridge by Holcomb is big news for the project, which they have advocated for years, if not decades.

More: Henderson, Evansville officials hope 2021 brings I-69 bridge progress

But local officials also said discussion needs to continue on one critical point — the U.S. 41 twin bridges' future.

INDOT and the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet are proceeding as if only one U.S. 41 bridge will remain in service once the new I-69 crossing is built. That's what the Preliminary Environmental Impact statement says will happen.

Local officials, however, want both U.S. 41 bridges to stay open.

"We've done a lot of engineering analysis and traffic modeling showing that the new I-69 bridge and one U.S. 41 bridge does provide a good balance of mobility," said Scott Manning, an INDOT spokesman. "All of the analysis we've done to this point is that alternative would provide the needed level of mobility for the region."

Manning added: "We certainly understand there are stakeholders that would like to continue to the conversation of what level of local mobility is needed, and that conversation can certainly continue."
Manning said maintenance costs on the U.S. 41 bridges are a major consideration for the two states, as they attempt to piece together enough financing to build the new crossing.

Keeping only one U.S. 41 bridge open is the scenario both states are most comfortable with, Manning said, and "keeping both open makes it more challenging to figure out the financial piece of it."

Henderson County Judge-Executive Brad Schneider said the timeline now being discussed means a new I-69 crossing bridge could be constructed and in use by 2027 or 2028.

That, he said, gives local officials a few years "to see if we can have a close conversation with both states" about the U.S. 41 spans. The northbound U.S. 41 bridge is 89 years old. The southbound one is 56 years old.

"By 2028, there will be new governors most likely and new leadership at both transportation departments and the financial situation of both states might be different," Schneider said. "With those things true, maybe we can have a serious conversation about keeping the twin bridges. While we are celebrating this big news, we can continue to talk."

The newly built tolled I-69 span will handle large commercial vehicles, and Kentucky and Indiana transportation officials believe area residents will start using them for their normal activities once it opens.

But in advocating for both U.S. 41 bridges to stay free and open, local officials have cited safety considerations, as well as reliance area residents, have historically had on them.

The U.S. 41 bridges are used by residents commuting across the Ohio for work, medical appointments and recreation. In many cases, those residents are low-to-moderate income and would want the free crossing, said Bob Koch, president of I-69 BridgeLink.

If Kentucky lawmakers pass a gas tax, as Indiana did two years ago, it would give the new bridge's financing a boost, Koch said.

Southwest Indiana Chamber CEO Tara Barney and Evansville Mayor Lloyd Winnecke also have voiced support for keeping both U.S. 41 spans open.

"We're going to have to pay close attention to what this means, and hopefully over the course of time we'll find options for the second (U.S. 41) bridge that don't take it out of use," Barney said. "We've got a number of years, and we'll continue to advocate and support that work."

All local officials, however, said the fact that Holcomb mentioned the I-69 bridge as a priority project in a statewide address is great news for the project. Barney used the word, "phenomenal."

A new Ohio River crossing has topped the wish lists of Southwest Indiana and Western Kentucky leaders for many years.

They view it is as critical for added convenience and safety, as well as growing a region that's seen minimal growth.

Winnecke said logistics is a key part of any economic development conversation local municipalities have.

"The fact that this will one day be an interstate corridor that connects Canada to Mexico will give us all kinds of opportunities we never had before," Winnecke said.
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