With Louisville’s Gargantuan New Interchange Comes a Profound Loss

Louisville's $1.1 billion "Spaghetti Junction" interchange under construction. Via Ohio River Bridges Project
Louisville's $1.1 billion "Spaghetti Junction" interchange under construction. Via Ohio River Bridges Project

Last week, Louisville cut the ribbon on the $2.6 billion “Ohio River Bridges Project” — a highway expansion that includes a gargantuan new interchange between downtown and the riverfront, known as Spaghetti Junction.

The project was immediately held up as an example of outdated transportation thinking. Not only was the interchange outrageously expensive, it has marred an enormous swath of downtown and severed access to the waterfront for at least another generation.

The project wiped out 30 storefronts — get those taxpaying businesses out of the way — in disadvantaged neighborhoods, Vox reports. Construction also consumed 33 acres of forest around the region, according to the Courier Journal, an area twice the size of Central Park. But to “soften” the “hard edges” of the enormous structure, the paper reported, some 580 trees will be planted around it. (How green!)

It’s all the more upsetting when you consider what might have been. A grassroots proposal to tear down a portion of the old highway and replace it with a park garnered considerable support, but was ultimately dismissed by local elected officials. Here’s a rendering of the park and esplanade that the teardown would have made possible.

An alternative to the “Spaghetti Junction” would have offered Louisville residents direct access to this park.

Louisville threw all that away to shave a few minutes off long-distance car commutes.

The city has been making the same mistakes for 60 years. Here’s a look at central Louisville in 1942, before it was criss-crossed by highways, courtesy of local blog Broken Sidewalk:

In this photo of downtown louisville from 1942 you can see the area where the junction now stands in the upper right hand corner. Photo via Broken Sidewalk
The area where Spaghetti Junction now stands is in the upper right hand corner. Photo via Broken Sidewalk

And here is Louisville with its present complement of highways and parking lots. It’s a tragedy that this is still happening to cities.

Photo: Google Earth via Broken Sidewalk

Other good reads today: Urban Review STL says that rather than pouring millions of dollars into a soccer stadium, St. Louis would be better off using the money to clear the way for development at the site of a decommissioned highway. And Bike Portland reports that outgoing mayor Charlie Hales used his final public remarks to criticize Oregon DOT and car culture.

  • Limerick33

    In addition, the project included the cost of building the new Abraham Lincoln Bridge and repairing the existing JFK Bridge. Now upon completion, the two bridges combine as Interstate 65, now a 12(!) lane monstrosity across the Ohio River feeding into Downtown.

    Why would they gut taxpaying businesses just so that people could use their tax dollars in Indiana faster is beyond me…

  • Mike

    And some people complain that bike projects are too expensive… Rather than pay for one highway interchange, $1,100,000,000 could probably build out a safe bikeway network in one or two dozen cities.

  • Ray Rock

    Louisville rocks. The highway system has its low points. But all in all it blends in better than the photo would suggest. Also, since the project is just now being completed, everything looks stripped and bare in that area. I reality that is not the case. The connection to the river is not impeded by highway 64 since it is elevated above. Besides, Forecastle and other events use some of the overpass for shade and shelter during huge events.

  • Chicagoan

    Wow that’s heinous. They could’ve done a lot of good with that 2.6 billion dollars. Instead they got this.

  • Patrick Jackson

    Does this project make it impossible to remove the waterfront highway?

  • BlueFairlane

    Some points …

    Central Park is 843 acres. The 33 acres of “forest” that were supposedly consumed are about 4% as large as Central Park, not twice as large as is stated here.

    Having driven through this interchange a million times, I don’t know where those 33 acres are supposed to have come from. I don’t recall there ever being anything even close to approaching forest anywhere near here.

    The look of this interchange is roughly the same as what’s existed there since the ’60s, and it doesn’t seem to take up any more space.

    As is mentioned above, I’64 is elevated. Park land has existed both above and below the highway since the late ’80s/ early ’90s. Before that, most of this land was railroad yards and scrap yards. The dominant neighborhood feature when I was a kid were giant piles of scrap metal.

    So while this may represent a lost opportunity and a big waste of money, the area isn’t nearly as blighted as this piece wants to imply. It’s actually a pretty nice place to walk.

  • BobaFuct

    The reference is to Louisville’s Central Park, which is 17 acres, not the Central Park in Manhattan.

  • CardinLex

    I would also like to point out some errors.

    The 8664 plan would have kept the majority of Spaghetti Junction (https://www.flickr.com/photos/80464769@N00/3041784630/). The alternative view this article uses shows a section of Louisville that wasn’t even involved in this project. The 8864 plan called for removing the interstate west of I-65. All of spaghetti junction is east of I-65.

    The $2.6 billion price tag includes the building of the Lewis & Clark Bridge (a key component of the 8664 proposal), the building of the Abraham Lincoln Bridge, and a complete overhaul of the Kennedy Bridge (which was much needed to improve the safety of all travellers).

    Over the past two years, Louisville’s bike network has increased by over 40 miles of dedicated lanes. (http://www.wdrb.com/story/25644060/40-new-miles-of-bike-lanes-to-be-put-in-louisville) Not to mention the opening of the Big Four Bridge, a pedestrian and cycle bridge crossing the Ohio River. Or the new bike and pedestrian facilities on the Lewis & Clark Bridge.

    As a Kentuckian, this project is great and has greatly enhanced the city. This article grossly mischaracterizes the city and it’s ability to propel her people forward.

  • Chicagoan

    I think the complaint is that 2.6 billion dollars were used to support a project that benefits motorists and motorists only.

  • Walter Crunch

    You are right. It is the nicest monument to death and health problems ever erected.

  • Propel her people forward? That is beyond simplistic can you articulate the benefit of this a little deeper?

  • BlueFairlane

    Then it would probably make sense to specify this on a blog posted to a national audience that doesn’t realize Louisville has a Central Park. (And it’s an odd comparison, anyway, as Louisville’s Central Park is a forgettable patch of ground that’s one of the least significant parks in the city. It’s nothing compared to Cherokee, Iroquois, or Shawnee Parks.)

  • neroden

    It’s never *impossible* to remove something, but having just spent gazillions of dollars on refreshing it, it makes it unlikely. And if it is removed, the gazillions of dollars will have been wasted so officials won’t want to remove it.

  • neroden

    Don’t get me started on how much passenger rail you could build with that. (Lots and lots and lots.)

  • Thatoneguy

    This is what most live traffic reporters across the US call a “Malfunction Junction.”


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