Indiana and Kentucky officials applauded the ceremonial start Thursday of an early phase of a project to build two new Ohio River bridges, signaling that decades of talk soon will become one of the nation's largest active public works endeavors.
Out-of-work union members hoping to join bridge construction crews were part of the crowd watching as Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear participated in a ceremonial groundbreaking along the river, near where one of the spans will rise.
"After 43 years of talk, this project is finally a reality," said Jeffersonville Mayor Mike Moore, who was a kindergartener when the so-called East End bridge was added to the area's long-range transportation plan in 1969.
His riverfront community will be among the beneficiaries of the $2.6 billion project that will build two bridges — one in downtown Louisville, one on the east side of the metropolitan area — and upgrade highway interchanges. Construction on both bridges is expected to begin in 2013.
Thursday's ceremony was for a project to extend a road that will be the first exit on the Indiana side when the East End bridge opens in 2017. Area officials hope the project, which will improve access to an industrial park and the Port of Indiana, will unleash more economic development.
Indiana is responsible for the East End bridge between Utica, Ind., and Prospect, Ky., linking the Lee Hamilton Expressway in Indiana and the Gene Snyder Freeway in Kentucky.
Kentucky will oversee work downtown. The downtown bridge, expected to open in 2018, will carry northbound traffic on Interstate 65 and the existing Kennedy Bridge will be used for southbound I-65 traffic. The downtown work will include reconfiguring an often-clogged interchange where three interstates converge.
The work will be paid for with a mix of highway funds and toll revenue.
The governors praised the persistence of both states, and said the partnership was an example of bipartisan cooperation in an era of partisan squabbling.
"There's all this hand-wringing about gridlock and paralysis and drift, and all too much of that is true," said Daniels, a Republican. "So when a big accomplishment happens, particularly that people were doubtful about, I hope it builds confidence, 'OK, if we can do that, we can do a few more things, what's next.' "
Beshear, a Democrat, said the cooperation should be a lesson for Washington.
"If the federal government would adopt that attitude, this country would be a lot better off," he said.
The construction phase will create about 4,000 jobs, Beshear said. And it was the prospect of landing work that drew about two dozen, hard-hat-wearing carpenters' union members to the ceremony. The men are out of work but are qualified to help build the bridges, said Chip White, a business representative with the union.
"It would mean about five years of being able to pay their mortgage payments, put their kids through school and be able to put food on their tables," he said in an interview. "That's exactly what this bridge means to the people here today."