EVANSVILLE — Leaders of some of Evansville's largest employers are urging the I-69 Ohio River Crossing project team to rethink its intent to shut down a U.S. 41 bridge.
A project team spokeswoman said those comments are being heard and conversations will continue, but the long-term cost to keep both U.S. 41 bridges open is a concern.
The team's current plan is to construct a tolled, four-lane I-69 span east of Ellis Park, remove the southbound U.S. 41 bridge from service and keep the northbound U.S. 41 bridge in use, possibly with a toll.
During a public hearing Tuesday, Evansville's corporate titans made their feelings known. They said the bi-state region needs not one, but two, toll-free U.S. 41 bridges left in service.
Bob Koch, CEO of Koch Enterprises, said about 500 employees of his companies traverse the bridge to and from work.
Koch, who also is president of the bi-state I-69 bridge advocacy coalition BridgeLink, said there are ways the project team can cut the long-term maintenance costs on the U.S. 41 bridges.
"Place a weight limit on the twin bridges and direct all medium and heavy trucks to the new, tolled bridge," Koch said. "There’s more than enough money to take care of the I-69 bridge and to keep the two existing bridges free of tolls."
Koch was followed to the microphone by Sara Miller, president of the Old National Bank Evansville region; Berry Global CEO Tom Salmon; former Deaconess Health System CEO Linda White; Southwest Indiana Chamber Board President Christine Keck; Brad Ellsworth, president of Vectren South and board president of Growth Alliance for Greater Evansville; and others.
White noted the volume of patients Deaconess facilities has from Kentucky communities, as well as the recently announced partnership between Deaconess and Henderson's Methodist Hospital.
Miller said Old National "benefits from a diverse and regional workforce, and we need to provide toll-free access to communities where they live and serve."
During Monday night's public hearing in Henderson, the project team heard many similar comments.
More: Henderson residents to I-69 project team: Leave U.S. 41 bridges alone
It remains to the be seen how the project team will react to what it heard during the hearings. The team consists of Indiana Department of Transportation and Kentucky Transportation Cabinet representatives.
Funding to construct the new bridge is the key issue at hand, officials said. The project's estimated cost is $1.5 billion.
The long-term costs of keeping one U.S. 41 bridge open, let alone two, would be substantial, according to the project team.
The northbound span opened in 1932. The southbound bridge dates to 1965.
Dan Prevost, the project team's lead environmental engineer, said at Tuesday's hearing that studies indicate this region needs six lanes of cross-river traffic.
Having more than six lanes "would unnecessarily add to the states' maintenance obligations," Prevost told the Evansville audience of about 125 people.
He said removing one U.S. 41 bridge would save about $145 million over 35 years.
Mindy Peterson, a spokeswoman for the project team, said on Wednesday: "We have this public comment period for a reason. We did hear from several people at the hearings, probably 30-plus people on both nights. There were a lot of passionate comments, and they will all be considered by the project team.
"If you're talking about (keeping) both U.S. 41 bridges, the math problem is compounded," Peterson continued. "There's more work to do. If you keep a second U.S. 41 bridge, it's only going to increase the funding gap, and we don't want that to be the hurdle that keeps us from moving forward with construction.
"Everything is still being considered, but it all comes down to dollars and cents."
The project team's preferred alternative route for a new I-69 bridge is a new terrain path that would connect completed portions of the interstate in Southwestern Indiana and Western Kentucky.
I-69 connects Michigan and Texas, and an Ohio River path is a missing link along the route.
One public commenter during Monday night's public hearing in Henderson, Michael Manfox Buley, said the preferred alternative route, known as Central Corridor 1, goes through Native American burial grounds in Kentucky, and he asked that it be tweaked.
Peterson said the project team has spoken with Buley about his claims on prior occasions, and archaeological surveys are being done in the area.