HIGHWAYS TO BOULEVARDS BLOG: Louisville & The Ohio River Bridges Project

This post is a part of CNU’s Highways to Boulevards Blog series, which features interview summaries and insights from some of the best minds at the frontline of our Highways to Boulevards Initiative.

Much of the following post was written by JC Stites, local Louisville business owner and co-founder with Tyler Allen of the advocacy group 8664, a grassroots advocacy group promoting a sensible alternative to Louisville’s Ohio River Bridges Project. Read our previous blog post on the tragic trajectory of King Edward Avenue, Ottawa here.

Mobility comes at a high cost. Just ask Louisville. The Ohio River Bridges Project, a joint effort by Kentucky and Indiana to expand the junction of I-65, I-71 and I-64, was approved in 2012 at a final estimated cost of $2.6 billion (scaled back $1.5 billion “to make it financially palatable” and still the costliest project in state history, according to the NYTimes). This approval runs counter to national trends in urban highway policy. And sadly, the true cost of the project continues to balloon higher.

The project is estimated to remove $72.5 million worth of homes and businesses from the tax base in Jefferson County. The Final Environmental Impact Statement prepared for the project states it will cost Jefferson County over 6,000 jobs (over 10,000 jobs for Kentucky as a whole) by 2025 due to jobs moving to Indiana, compared with the no-action-alternative. This translates into roughly $204 million in annual lost wages in Jefferson County and almost $400 million in lost wages for Kentucky as a whole. The cost of “mobility” is high indeed.



The local grassroots advocacy group 8664 proposed converting 2.0 miles of expressway into an at-grade boulevard which would have created 60 acres of reclaimable land that could be put to more economically viable uses that would add value to the city. They also supported a compromise of building only one, not two, bridges across the Ohio River into Indiana. Their proposals were derided and struck down.

JC Stites, local Louisville business owner and co-founder of 8664 (with Tyler Allen), has taken the time to reflect on Louisville’s devastating loss, hoping the lessons learned will serve to aid similar efforts across the country. What follows is JC’s perspective:

Lessons for Trying to 86 the 64

Every grassroots effort is unique, but we at 8664 learned from our experience and would like to help others succeed.

Early on in our fight we met with a founder of a Fortune 500 company to seek his advice and support. He said something like, “You're right, but you might not realize your vision until you're six feet under.” He told us that good ideas travel slower than bad ones, implying that it would be an uphill battle, for us at least.

Louisville's situation is unique because we have a very small and defined power base. They had been fighting for decades to make sure nothing happened, meaning no bridges were built (yet, with the approved proposal, one of the two new bridges, deemed the East End bridge, will travel though an “old money” area where many of the defined power base resides).

Photo courtesy of 8664Existing condition of waterfront and waterfront highway. Photo courtest of 8664.

We confidently believed that these powered interests were going to lose their battle and a new bridge was going to be built regardless, so we attempted to convince them that our solution—removing the waterfront expressway and one of two downtown bridges—was the best possible compromise and would accomplish many of the goals they were seeking: a connection to nature (Ohio River), increased density in the city center and reduced sprawl.

They didn't buy it. The money and the political influence remained against any sort of infrastructure change, and thus aligned against us. They wrapped their opposition to the East End Bridge in supposed altruistic reasons such as "sustainability". We were simply trying to find the best compromise for the whole of Louisville. Without their support, we lead an exciting fight as the underdog.

Awareness grew quickly for our vision—lots of articles, interviews, debates, renderings, conferences, studies, rallies, etc. Our confusing yet catchy name—8664, as in remove (86) Interstate-64—caught fire. We unloaded over 30,000 bumper stickers, gained 10,000 supporters on our website, and more.

Even some of the entrenched "do nothing" supporters softened and came over to our side. It felt like success, but it was not enough. 

In all the excitement, this highway fight probably got a little too ugly for our small community. 8664 wasn’t bashful about connecting dots that had been previously unmentionable (The Opinion's page editor of the Courier-Journal was married to the President of the lead opposition group and lived within half a mile of the path of the East End Bridge).

Opposition to doing anything was VERY deep and was pretty vindictive when it came to people speaking out. In all the excitement, we forgot to connect the most important dots: they had the money, the politics AND the ink. That's a trifecta.

What we had was the heart and passion of a lot of young people who wanted to see Louisville change, to embrace the kind of positive things happening in places like Portland and San Francisco.

Rendering of 8664's proposal for Louisville's waterfront. Photo courtesy of 8864.

It looks a lot like 8664 and the "do nothing" interests have lost for the time being. The ridiculously large tolled two bridge project is moving forward. It's a grotesquely mutated version of what it should be, due to the decades of special interest opposition to the project, but it's the first new bridge in Louisville over the last 50 or so years, a symbol of something happening.

Lessons For Future Highway Removal Efforts

In our efforts, everything seemed urgent and rushed. We should have slowed down and spent more time talking to the interested parties early in the process. We thought we were doing that, but we got impatient. The conversation moved to the newspaper and press conferences where it magnified our differences and created a contentious environment. 

Here are a number of lessons we learned from this painful process:

  1. Slow down and talk to all interested parties - it's a long, hard road.
  2. Spend more time talking to people who don't like the idea than people who do.
  3. Build consensus.
  4. Don’t be married to one vision, facilitate the processes so it moves in the right direction.
  5. Don't let anyone own the idea—until it's the Mayor, and then let her take all the credit.

We do, however, know a number of positive things came from the entire effort. We engaged a lot of people in thinking about and trying to participate in the way we shape the city. We shined a light on aspects of the city's decision-making infrastructure that were crippling innovation and change. In the future, we residents of Louisville need to pool resources, studies, advocates and more to inform leaders on the benefits of freeway removal—something CNU has been doing the heavy lifting on for many years. This, too, can be said for other cities fighting similar, uphill battles.

Lastly, 8664 proudly promoted a transformative vision, which may still be realized in the years to come. I hope I'm still alive to see it. 

*8664’s efforts may have already spurred innovation, as recent proposals to open up more of downtown Louisville to redevelopment have surfaced. Thank you to JC Stites, Tyler Allen, and 8664 for their advocacy efforts and thoughtful reflection.


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