Louisville’s New $1.1 Billion Bridge: Empty at Rush Hour

Traffic on Louisville's brand new downtown bridge was light at 5 p.m. Tuesday. Photo: Kentucky Transportation Cabinet via  City Observatory
Traffic on Louisville's brand new downtown bridge was light at 5 p.m. Tuesday. Photo: Kentucky Transportation Cabinet via City Observatory

Kentucky and Indiana just cut the ribbon on the new $1.3 billion “Downtown Crossing” bridge part of the even bigger $2.6 billion “Ohio River Bridges” project, which encompasses two new bridges over the Ohio River and one enormous tangle of an interchange. The project was widely ridiculed for its outrageous expense and for degrading the connection between downtown Louisville and the riverfront.

To top it all off, the drivers the downtown bridge was built for — suburban commuters whose travel time was deemed to be so important — don’t seem to appreciate it that much. Joe Cortright at City Observatory has been using live traffic cameras maintained by the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet to investigate traffic conditions on the brand new bridge. What he found on Tuesday at 5 p.m., which should be the height of rush hour, was an empty highway, shown above.

The new Downtown Crossing bridge costs between $1 and $3 to drive across. Cortright suggests this early evidence indicates that Kentucky and Indiana made a grave miscalculation:

This very anecdotal, if visual, information suggests a couple of hypotheses. First, it does appear that a fairly large segment of traffic crossing the Ohio River in Louisville on this particular afternoon chose the older, slower and non-tolled route over the newer, faster and more expensive tolled freeway bridges. Second, it seems like there is plenty of capacity crossing the Ohio River at this particular point to accommodate all these vehicles. Not only is the freeway nearly deserted, but traffic appears to be well below capacity on the Second Street Bridge as well.

Of course, this is a small sample and a highly unscientific set of observations. But taken at face value, these pictures call into question the decision to spend several billion dollars to increase highway capacity over the Ohio River. If so few cars are actually crossing the river at peak hour on a typical business day, and if such a relatively large proportion of them apparently prefer to use the older, slower route rather than pay to use the fancy new crossing, did the states of Kentucky and Indiana have any reason to spend so much to build a giant new bridge? And will the two states, who are counting on toll revenues to pay back a major share of the cost of the project, be able to cover their debts?

For comparison, here’s a photo Cortright grabbed at the same time at the nearby Second Street Bridge, built in the 1920s, which has no toll:

Photo: Kentucky Transportation Cabinet via City Observatory
Photo: Kentucky Transportation Cabinet via City Observatory

As Cortright says, it’s too early to reach conclusions. But this project will be an interesting one to watch.

Kentucky, especially, borrowed enormous sums to build these highway bridges, based on projected revenue from tolls. If the state’s projections were off the mark, it could cost the public dearly. There are plenty of examples of new toll roads failing to make ends meet. In this case, residents of Kentucky and Indiana would be on the hook, as would people all over the country, since the feds helped guarantee the loans.

Correction: This post originally mislabled the bridge in the above photo as the “East End Bridge.” It is the “Downtown Crossing Bridge.” 

More recommended reading today: BikeWalkLee carries a column explaining why Fort Myers, Florida, topped Smart Growth America’s recent list of most dangerous cities for walking: It’s a design failure. And the Political Environment wonders why no one in Wisconsin is mentioning higher speed limits as a factor in the rise in traffic deaths.

  • Walter Crunch

    A true monument to the car god.

  • com63

    I wonder if you can use video analytics to count cars with cameras like this?

  • BlueFairlane

    I think if you’re going to make a comparison of Louisville river crossings, you need to actually compare all Louisville river crossings. There are four: The new East End bridge seen above carrying an extension of the Gene Snyder Expressway, the recently twinned spans of Interstate 65 (that are also tolled) into the much maligned Spaghetti Junction, the the Clark Memorial Bridge built in 1924 carrying US 31, and the Sherman Minton Bridge on the west end of town built in 1962 and carrying Interstate 64. The Sherman Minton Bridge is free and gets Interstate 65 traffic to Indiana with a five-mile detour. It also nearly collapsed a few years ago and had to be closed for repairs for something like 18 months, during which time the picture on the Clark Memorial and the I-65 bridges looked very different. A simple comparison of the East End and the Clark Memorial bridges as they stand today misses probably 3/4ths of the actual traffic.

    My own belief is that the East End Bridge was, in fact, superfluous and a waste of money, as very little of the traffic flow into or around Louisville comes from that corner of town. I also suspect the resistance of people in Kentucky and Southern Indiana to actually paying for the infrastructure they demand will keep diverting people over the Sherman Minton until it falls in the river, and then the number of vehicles you see in this picture will go up. But this is a dumb, incomplete way of presenting the argument.

  • MattyCiii

    If toll revenue for the new bridge falls short I would suggest tolling the old bridge to make up the shortfall…

  • Chris Connor

    Speak for yourself BlueFairlane. I now have my sanity back thanks to the east end bridge. An average 45 minute commute to Indiana via 64w was what I faced for thirteen years. I know have, at max, a predictable 25 minute commute. I don’t mind paying for the convenience of having more time, less gas, less wear and tear on my car now. Those who are saying it isn’t worth it should also consider these factors in conjunction to saving time.

  • Larry Littlefield

    That would do it.

  • Shawn Reilly

    The picture is of the new downtown bridges not the east end bridge, which makes the situation even worse.

  • CardInLex

    First, the image is not of the Lewis & Clark (east end) Bridge.

    Second, this whole article is anecdotal (at best) and does not convey actual data.

    Is there no such thing as journalistic integrity anymore?

  • crazymind99

    PLEASE show these bureaucrat’s and politician’s that we are against these bridges by not using them. Eventually the tolls will have to be waived.

  • Jim Carter

    I ride my skateboard across the new bridge. No toll, no pollution!

  • JZ71

    But now that the bridge is complete, won’t it (eventually? soon?) spur new development?! On both sides of the river? I’m old enough to remember when the Snyder didn’t have a name, and only ran between Shelbyville and Taylorsville Roads (and Hurstbourne was two lanes wide) – in the last 40 years, a whole lotta development has happened outside the Watterson, and there’s no reason to expect it to slow down over the next 40 years . . .

  • JZ71

    FWIW, the old bridge was built as a toll bridge, and the tolls went away after the bonds were paid off . . . https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Rogers_Clark_Memorial_Bridge

  • Kevin1813

    LOL yeah, eventually money will just fall from the sky and the state won’t have to pay for the brides. Eventually the tolls will be waived? More like all the bridges will end up being tolled to pay for the two new bridges.

  • Kevin1813

    Yes, let’s spur suburban development in a metro that is barely growing. Suburbs equal additional infrastructure taxes, not a good thing for a smaller, barely growing metro.

  • HOTDOGVNDR

    It’s a blog, not necessarily a reputable News site. Joe Cartwright, the one watching the camera, I’m sure his “Data” is suffering from Confirmation Bias.

  • Dusty Nuss

    You have that photo wrongly captioned. The photo is of the downtown bridges, not the east end bridge. It even says “Lincoln / Kennedy” on the photo. The east end bridge is the Louis and Clark or something like that.

  • Greg

    That’s exactly what will happen. That’s the first thing that popped in my head when I read the headline. They “will” start tolling all of the bridges. It’s just a matter of time. Plus now that the 2nd Street Bridge and the Sherman Minton bridges are seeing more traffic than predicted, that will increase the wear and tear on those roadways at a faster rate, leading to more frequent road repair/lane closures, which will add more costs that need to be paid. In fact that’s probably the excuse they will use to start tolling them.

  • Thanks for the commenters that pointed that out. We corrected the article.

  • Thanks for the correction. That was my mistake and is noted above. We fully admit the evidence is anecdotal and look forward to seeing later data. But sometimes anecdotal information is noteworthy or newsworthy.

  • Melissa

    It would probably give your article more credibility if you had this correction at the top. Any Louisville native will know that is the incorrect bridge and immediately discredit this.

    Also, this bridge was built to be used more over time as the river ridge community in Indiana develops. No one expects it to be used like the downtown bridges right away.- there are simply not enough businesses or homes on either side of the new bridge right now to make that possible.

  • This is the Abraham Lincoln Bridge (next to the John F. Kennedy Memorial Bridge), not the Downtown Crossing. I believe it will come to be called Abramson’s Folly in due course.

  • We’ll gladly take Trump’s Magic Money.

  • The opposition to the East End Bridge is largely from parochial interests, not looking at the big picture about how this spurs economic development across the entire region. It’s not just suburban development that will come of this. We are all enriched by this obvious completion of I-265.

  • Cars aren’t going away. And I say that as someone who desires expanded public transportation in the Louisville area.

  • Walter Crunch

    So, let’s build roads for something that kills? OK then.

  • Derek Hofmann

    Why are we against these bridges? Is the transparency of the cost of infrastructure too much for us?

  • Miles Bader

    Not without help, anyway.

    So let’s help!

  • Rob

    I don’t see a pic of the east end bridge above. Only the Lincoln and the 2nd street.

  • Hersheeave.com

  • SWin indiana

    You are an idiot. 1) the SM didn’t “almost fall down” the so called inspection plates they removed were the original and permanent fix for the steel issued at the original construction. 2) the east end bridge was the only one needed.

  • dernspiker

    Sheesh Try looking at the same picture at 5:15 or 5:30. It takes that long to get to the bridge. If I leave at 4:30 I breeze through everything. If I leave at 5 it’s bumper to bumper…

  • Steven Cox

    This article seems to be against progress. I’ve been across the bridge a number of times and traffic hasn’t been that light. While Louisville may not need the capacity to it’s fullest at this time, the need for more capacity will grow. It’s not just today we need to worry about, it’s 30 years from now.

  • Adam Westhusing

    I call BS on this. The camera shots pictured have the time embedded in them and they’ve been cropped out.

    See http://pws.trafficwise.org/pullover/172_65_1_10.jpg and http://www.trimarc.org/images/snapshots/CCTV065.jpg

    Post the full images, and I would believe your argument.

  • April Webb

    The toll prices listed are incorrect. For cars it is $4 if you don’t have a transponder and $2 if you do. It’s quite a lot more for box trucks and semis.

  • Harrison Emery

    The traffic shown in the picture of the Second Street bridge traffic is very light; it’s what you would typically see during the middle of the day when the traffic light at the bottom of the bridge is red.

    I can see both bridges from my office, and I’ve seen very few traffic issues on the bridges. As for the expressways heading out of downtown after crossing the bridges…

    And I agree that the tax payer is ultimately going to get screwed when the tolling revenue doesn’t meet projections, unless they start tolling the other two bridges.

  • Necrosaro420

    I will never use the bridges at the toll rate they are using. Not putting a tracking device on my car, nor am I paying $8 total to go across a bridge and back. It’s ridiculous.

  • Kenny Martin

    It is a known fact that only the east end bridge should have been built no doubt, and the spaghetti mess corrected but these pics are BS, it has helped my drive time substantially in the mornings.

  • HayBro

    But the top photo is still an empty 10 lane freeway at 5:20pm. All the traffic shown could easily fit into 2 lanes.

  • Adam Westhusing

    At 5:20pm on a Saturday…I’ll update it at 5:00pm today for comparison.

  • Adam Westhusing

    Here are the two places mentioned in the article at 5:00pm on a Monday (January 23rd):

    http://pws.trafficwise.org/pullover/172_65_1_10.jpg
    http://www.trimarc.org/images/snapshots/CCTV065.jpg

  • neroden

    Progress? A giant empty expanse of black tar? You have an odd definition of progress.

    Perhaps the wasted space on this overblown bridge could be reused for something useful. A rail line? A scenic walk?

  • neroden

    It’ll never be used to capacity. It’s vastly overbuilt. It’s not as if Louisville is a booming town — it isn’t.

  • neroden

    The Louisville boom from 2000-2010 does not appear to be continuing indefinitely.

  • john may

    I don’t use them because the tolls are too high! I could handle $1 with a transponder, but they messed up by requiring 40 trips at that price or it goes to $2. What am I supposed to do? Make extra trips to fulfill the $1 price? I may not make exactly 40 trips per month. So, I make zero trips. Great thinking guys. Perhaps if you lowered the trips to say 20 more people would use the transponder…:duh

  • john may

    Agreed. They should have lowered the price to $1 with a transponder with fewer than 40 trips a month.

  • john may

    They should have lowered the price to $1 with transponder with fewer than 40 trips.

  • Kenny Martin

    10 minutes is alot to me and many others.

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