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By Alan G. Brake

March 2007

We now have the designs for two new bridges accompanied by a chorus of anxious proclamations by civic leaders declaring an end to the debate.


The new downtown bridge depicted beside the Kennedy Bridge.

The debate about the Ohio River Bridges Project has been one of the most fractious in memory. The positions, well known to most, include those who are for the East End bridge and against a downtown bridge (or vice versa), those who are against both bridges, those who are for both bridges, and those who would build the East End bridge while reworking the downtown waterfront. To add to this often confusing debate, we now have the designs for two new bridges accompanied by a chorus of anxious proclamations by civic officials declaring an end to the debate and trumpeting the need for unity and haste in construction.

With the unveiling of the two suspension bridge designs comes some welcome good news. Both bridges are thoughtful and well-designed, marked improvements over the “erector set” truss spans such as the notoriously rusty Kennedy Bridge. They also reflect tremendous outreach to the community on the part of the Kentucky and Indiana Ohio River Bridges Project (ORBP), which sponsored numerous public meetings and surveys. Both bridge designs deserve serious consideration, as they will affect the city’s relationship to the river and the city’s sense of identity for decades to come, and both have strengths and weaknesses to be debated.

Of the two, the East End bridge is the more simply and elegantly designed. Officials with the ORBP said that the public voiced a strong desire for the bridge to be as “visually transparent” as possible, both for those on the span looking out over the river and the landscape and for those on land looking at the river. On this count the bridge succeeds. With two towers and suspender cables radiating down to the center of the bridge, users will have a completely uninterrupted view looking out over the river. The center cable design maximizes the bridge’s transparency and reduces its visual impact on the landscape, giving users the sense that they are airborne while crossing the river. The bridge includes six lanes of traffic, three in each direction, and a 17-foot-wide pedestrian and cyclist lane, located on the side, which will be separated from traffic by a crash-proof barrier.

The near “visually transparent” East End bridge design offers unimpeded views of the river and its environs.

A mock aerial view of the East End bridge.

“I believe this design was felt to be the best overall choice for this pristine rural context,” says Daniel Carrier, project manager for the East End bridge. “The public wanted a design that wouldn’t obstruct the landscape.” This sensitivity reflects widespread concern about the impact on the river corridor, especially in the sparsely developed East End, which includes a valuable nature habitat, unspoiled view corridors and historic properties. Though the project will change this context dramatically, the clarity of this design reflects a serious effort on the part of the ORBP to reconcile bridge construction with this scenic area. The design will be refined by noted architect Miguel Rosales, who has worked on numerous cable-stayed spans, such as the new Charles River Bridge in Boston. (Cable-stayed bridges have become common around with world, with noted architects such as Santiago Calatrava and Norman Foster designing some of the formally and structurally dynamic examples.)

The Kennedy and the new downtown bridge would work in tandem.

Of concern, however, is how the pedestrians and cyclists will get to the crossing or where they will go once they cross it. “The final details of pedestrian access are to be worked out,” says Carrier. “It’s outside the scope of our work.” Needless to say, access by car would never be left in such an unresolved position.

The downtown bridge, while an improvement over its rusty neighbor, is somewhat less successful. With three pairs of towers from which cables radiate to the sides of the bridge’s deck, it is considerably more visually complex than the eastern span, and, as a result, borders on clunky looking. The center towers are taller than the two other pairs of towers, so that it echoes the form of the nearby truss bridges. While this attempt to “fit in” with its neighbors is understandable, it is not particularly valuable given the mediocrity of the Kennedy. A team led by Michael Baker Jr. Inc., which has worked on other Ohio River bridges, will continue to refine the design. “The final design of the piers, the colors, the finishes are still being chosen,” says James B. Williams, project manager for the downtown bridge.

The drawbacks with the downtown crossing, however, are not primarily aesthetic. Pairs of piers are used because the new bridge will carry only one direction of traffic from I-65, on six lanes and a pedestrian and cyclist lane, so the cables couldn’t be attached to a raised median as in the eastern bridge (which will have two-way traffic). Centrally placed cables would have made it impossible to cross the six lanes of traffic, and ORBP officials continuously stress the desire for easy and rapid movement of maximum traffic loads through the area. The other direction of traffic will cross the Kennedy Bridge, also on six lanes, so that the two will form, in effect, one 12-lane super bridge.

Considering the obvious maintenance problems with the Kennedy, it seems logical to question the decision to tether the new span to the old. “The Kennedy Bridge is structurally sound, but no bridge lasts forever,” says Williams. “It’s safe to assume that the new bridge will outlast the Kennedy.” What will happen when it must be replaced? “It’s not going to be fun,” Williams says. “Luckily, for right now we can get one (new bridge into Spaghetti Junction).” By implication, then, when the Kennedy fails, a third new bridge will need to be added so that the Kennedy can be taken down. Could we, perhaps, make due with a single eight-lane bridge and remove the Kennedy now?

Though there has been much concern about the effect of widening I-64 over Waterfront Park, there has been curiously little discussion, publicly at least, about the effect this beefed up I-65 crossing — to repeat, widened to 12 lanes over two bridges — will have on the park or on downtown. Given this silence it seems fair to ask if perhaps the unveiling of the bridge designs isn’t something of a Trojan horse, a pair of attractive designs obscuring a massive highway project in the center of downtown. This is not meant to suggest some kind of conspiracy, but merely to question the priorities of what is being debated.

While the two designs reflect improvement over some earlier crossings — a notable exception being the Second Street Bridge, as Edie Bingham rightly points out in the accompanying article — the realities of these bridges on the ground, both downtown and in the developing suburbs, will always be more important than their iconography. As we enter into this project, which could take 20 years or more to complete, these conditions must continue to be debated. If anything is to be said for the strong feelings generated by this project, it has pushed us to demand, at least, better designed infrastructure along the city’s most important asset, the river.

Estimated completion dates (December 2006 figures subject to change by the states of Kentucky and Indiana and the Federal Highway Administration):
Downtown bridge: 2019 (figuring in Kennedy-interchange construction)
East End bridge: 2013
Total project: 2024
Estimated costs:
Downtown bridge: $457 million
East End bridge: $378 million
Total project: $3.9 billion.
Bridge Measurements:
Downtown bridge: bridge deck 71 feet above river at normal pool; center towers 215 feet above deck, outside towers 125 feet above deck; distance between outside and middle piers 750 feet, distance between outside piers and land 250 feet.
East End bridge: bridge deck 71 feet above river at normal pool; towers 229 feet above deck; distance between two piers 1,200 feet, distance between piers and land 450 feet,

Design and engineering firms:
Downtown bridge: Michael Baker Jr. Inc.; International Bridge Technologies Inc.; Buckland and Taylor Ltd.; Christian Menn; Crosby/Schlessinger/Smallridge LLC.

East End bridge: Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade & Douglas Inc.; Rosales Gottemoeller & Associates

Alan G. Brake, a frequent Louisville Magazine contributor, is studying architectural history and theory at Yale.

(Images courtesy of the Ohio River Bridges Project)

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