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Daniels, Beshear reach agreement on bridges

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Construction on two new bridges spanning the Ohio River between Kentucky and Indiana could begin in late 2012, with the spans open before the end of the decade, Kentucky and Indiana officials said Thursday.

Contracts for the $2.6 billion projects would be bid out within the next year under the deal reached by Ky. Gov. Steve Beshear and Ind. Gov. Mitch Daniels. Each state would be responsible for about $1.3 billion of the total cost.

Kentucky Transportation Cabinet Secretary Mike Hancock said work could begin by the end of 2012, with "visible construction" starting in early 2013.

"By 2018, hopefully, you'll find both bridges open to traffic," Hancock told reporters Thursday afternoon during a conference call. "If we're successful with a good bidder, by the end of next year we could see contractors mobilizing to do work."

Kentucky would be responsible for building a new Interstate 65 bridge, refurbishing the Kennedy Bridge, modernizing the Kennedy Interchange, and expanding the I-65 approach in Indiana.

Indiana would be responsible for constructing a new bridge across the river at Utica, Ind., and Prospect, Ky., a new highway linking the Lee Hamilton Expressway and Gene Snyder Freeway, and a tunnel in eastern Jefferson County.

Tolls would help to cover the cost of construction.

"By playing to each state's strengths, we are lowering the cost of the project, increasing competition, and speeding the construction of these critical bridges," Beshear said in a statement.

Daniels declined comment through a spokeswoman.

The proposal for bridge tolls has drawn opposition in Kentucky and Indiana. Paul Fetter, head of Organization For A Better Southern Indiana, Inc., said tolls are not in "best interest" of community, but he was glad to see the cost of the project reduced.

"Our leaders continue to listen, but it looks like they still have a little work to do," Fetter told The Associated Press. Hopefully we can get this thing resolved in the next few months."

The land conservation group River Fields also sued the Federal Highway Administration over the plans for the east end bridge, saying the environmental impact study for the bridges project wasn't properly done. That suit is pending in federal court in Louisville. A message left for a River Fields spokesman was not immediately returned late Thursday.

The Louisville and Southern Indiana Bridges Authority would help coordinate the construction projects, which would be coupled under a single financial plan.

The Bridges Authority has been working to build consensus between the states on their preferred approach. That resulted in the agreement between Beshear and Daniels on a plan that they say will save $1.5 billion.

The original cost estimate on the projects was $4.1 billion. The states will supplement revenue from tolls with state and federal transportation funds

"The money is basically coming from a combination of sources," Hancock said.

U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, a Democrat who represents the Louisville area, called the deal "encouraging" and hopes that it gets the long-anticipated project off the ground.

"We know we can afford it," Yarmuth said. "We know how to pay for it."

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer estimated that the project will create about 5,000 jobs over the course of the construction. Fischer added that tolls are a necessity to pay for the work.

"In this environment, you need tolls to get things done," Fischer said.

The new spans wouldn't replace the Kennedy Bridge, the I-65 bridge or the Sherman Minton Bridge, which is currently closed. Instead, the new bridges and an untangled interchange in downtown Louisville, where Interstates 64, 65 and 71 converge, are expected to alleviate traffic on the older spans and compensate for population growth in the region.

The Sherman Minton Bridge, which carries motorists along I-64 between Louisville and southern Indiana, shut down earlier this year because of structural deficiencies. Indiana officials hope to have the span reopened by spring.

Fischer said that shutdown "really sharpened people's minds" about the new bridges project.

"If another bridge went down, we'd be in the 1800s as far as transportation went," Fischer said.

Yarmuth said the tentative deal between Indiana and Kentucky should also help the state and Ohio in the ongoing struggle to replace the Brent Spence Bridge, which connects northern Kentucky and southern Ohio along Interstates 71 and 75, by laying out a roadmap of how such a deal could work. President Barack Obama visited southern Ohio and used the Brent Spence as an example of infrastructure that needed replacing and upgrading.

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