By BRADEN LAMMERS
CLARK COUNTY —
Newly-elected Gov. Mike Pence got his first look at what Indiana will construct as its portion of the Ohio River Bridges Project Friday afternoon.
Pence, along with Indiana Department of Transportation officials, toured the Utica site where the new east-end bridge will connect Interstate 265 in Prospect, Ky., to Indiana.
Indiana is responsible for constructing the east-end corridor, including the bridge and its approaches in both states. WVB East End Partners is the contractor for the project, which is estimated to cost $763 million.
Tree clearing and vacant building demolition began on Jan. 15 on the east-end approaches, according to an Ohio River Bridges Project construction update. Clarksville-based Gohmann Construction Inc. is performing the work in Prospect, Ky., and Dan Cristiani Excavating, also of Clarksville, is performing the work in Utica.
Pence pointed to the importance of the bridges project and the region as a transportation crossroads.
“We’ve also got, I think, a great location,” Pence said. “But you can have the best location in the world if you can’t get from a to b that’s not going to create an environment that attracts investment in ways that will create jobs for today and for tomorrow. Making sure we’re maintaining and constructing the kind of infrastructure that will encourage investment here in Indiana is a priority for our administration.”
The infrastructure improvements also includes a downtown bridge and reconstruction of Spaghetti Junction in Louisville. Kentucky is responsible for the downtown portion of the project.
Recurring complaints about the bridges project have included concern by Indiana business owners on the impact the new downtown bridge and its tolls will have on their businesses.
Clarksville and the Clark-Floyd Counties Convention and Tourism Bureau approved an interlocal agreement that pledged $10,000 to fight tolling on Interstate 65 bridges over the Ohio River. Jeffersonville’s City Council has yet to approve the interlocal agreement. The council approved 6-3 at a December meeting to seek an interlocal agreement with the tourism bureau and to dedicate $10,000 out of the city’s gaming fund, subject to another approval of the agreement by the council.
“I think when we all went through the experience of the Sherman Minton bridge closure we understand the critical importance of infrastructure in this region,” Pence said in response to the concerns that the downtown bridge will affect Southern Indiana businesses. “Finding a way with the new financing tools that we have in Indiana to complete this project is appropriate and prudent and it is going to create an environment that is already and is going to continue to attract the kind of significant investment that will make this project a win-win, for Hoosiers, for small business owners and for our economy as a whole.”
He also addressed claims that Indiana commuters will pay a disproportionate amount of the tolls on the new bridges.
“We’re going to continue to sharpen our pencils ... [to] make sure Hoosiers get a fair deal and make sure taxpayers broadly get a fair deal,” he said. “I’m confident we’ll be able to do that, and I’m confident we’ll be able to work with our partners in Kentucky to accomplish that.”
Groundbreaking on the east-end bridge occurred in late August when the construction of a 3,000-foot extension of Old Salem Road began. The road will provide improved access to the River Ridge Commerce Center and the Port of Indiana-Jeffersonville.
Gohmann Asphalt is pouring concrete, driving steel pilings and placing fill for a 170-foot overpass at the first exit on the Indiana side of the East End Bridge, according to INDOT. Contractors are also excavating and blasting to install new drainage pipes.
Work on the bridge itself and its approaches is expected to begin this summer after a second and final notice to proceed is issued by Indiana following “financial close.”
Financial close, which details the financial terms of the procurement, is anticipated near the end of March. The east-end bridge is expected to be opened to traffic by the end of October 2016.
Pence was among a number of state and local officials, including Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann, that were on-hand as Amazon.com Inc. formally announced the grand opening and already planned expansion of its Jeffersonville fulfillment center.
The 1-million-square-foot center opened in mid-October and Amazon is preparing to fill out the remaining third of the space that it has not yet utilized. The expansion will also bring with it “hundreds” of more jobs, said Greg Walsh, general manager of the Jeffersonville fulfillment center.
Mike Roth, vice president of Amazon North American operations, put the size of the fulfillment center in perspective. He said it is the size of more than 25 football fields. Once the expansion is complete, which is expected some time this summer, more employees will be hired.
When the facility opened 900 people were hired at the site and currently there are more than 1,100 employees working at the fulfillment center.
The growth in jobs is what Pence pointed to as the main goal during his term as governor.
“Our administration is focused on making job creation job one,” he said.
He credited local leadership for their role in transitioning the former Indiana Army Ammunition Plant into the River Ridge Commerce Center.
“I think we are just on the very beginning of an exciting period of growth at River Ridge,” Pence said. “And our administration and the people of Indiana are ready to continue to partner with this community to grow south central Indiana.”
“What you see Amazon saying here is that they’re willing to invest an enormous amount of money in this area because they believe that the men and women of this area are going to meet the needs,” he said after the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
River Ridge Executive Director Jerry Acy echoed the sentiment and said Amazon will help spur future development at River Ridge.
“To date, this is the most significant, signature development here at the commerce center,” he said. “We are developing 6,000 acres of a industrial, commercial dynamo of job creation for, not only Clark County and the region, but also for the state of Indiana.”
Acy added that of that 6,000 acres only 6 percent of the property has been developed. Even with the minimal percentage of development in the commerce center, 5,000 people are employed there.
“This is just the beginning and we’ll have many more days like today,” he said.
Jeffersonville Mayor Mike Moore pointed to the impact River Ridge has had on the city.
“Jeffersonville has become the destination point for business,” he said. “In the community, state, nationally, it’s all going on right here. The tip of the ice berg has been touched. There’s so much more to come.”
For a more in-depth story about the fulfillment center and a peek inside the facility, check out the Friday, Jan. 31 edition of the News and Tribune.