Indiana taxpayers to spend $250 million on Kentucky tunnel

If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around, does it make a sound? If you’re in Kentucky: absolutely. A decades-long effort to preserve a small section of forest is costing out-of-state taxpayers millions as uprooting trees creates uproar.

The states of both Indiana and Kentucky have been trying to tackle the issue of traffic congestion for ages in the greater Louisville, KY metropolitan area. There the region is divided by the Ohio River, a natural boundary between the two states that makes maneuvering around highways and byways a nightmare for millions of drivers each year. In 2012 a construction crew will finally begin work on a bridge that will span the river and, area officials hope, relieve the woes of residents of both states. A small section of land in Kentucky is causing some controversy, though, after Indiana taxpayers are being forced to foot the cost of an out-of-state, $250 million tunnel that is part of the project yet deemed unnecessary by just about everyone.

"The tunnel is a terrible abuse of taxpayers' money," former Louisville Congresswoman Anne Northup tells the Indy Star. "It's an outrage in terms of what it accomplishes versus the cost."

Rep. Northup might be angry, but the real outrage comes across the river in Indiana where residents will be singlehandedly responsible for paying for the 1,940 foot-long tunnel in neighboring Kentucky that will route traffic away and towards the bridge. Both states are putting in around $1.3 billion a piece on the project that exceeds two-and-a-half billion dollars in all, yet Kentuckians and Hoosiers alike largely agree that a tunnel that will be built beneath 11 acres of land included on the National Register of Historic Places isn’t all that necessary. In fact, that part of the project will constitute one-tenth of the cost for the entire inter-state bridge system that mostly involves bridging the Ohio River. Opponents of the all-but-confirmed construction say that they could save millions if they forego blasting a tunnel below the preserved woods.

Instead of the tunnel, Hoosiers could have saved around $203.7 million by instead opting to pave a traditional roadway through the disputed property in Kentucky, reports the Indy Star; another option would have disrupted the land, but still saved Indiana taxpayers $82 million. For now, however, the project looks to follow through with a $250 million tunnel that some say is beyond dubious.

The root of the problem starts with a 1988 initiative waged by the Jefferson County Office of Historic Preservation and Archives in Kentucky, who asked the owner of 11 acres of land to apply to have her property placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Bridge proposals spanning the river were already in the works and were likely to include decimating a picaresque but petite section of woods on the edge of the so-called Drumanard property. Neighbors of Mary Peabody Fitzhugh’s parcel of land enjoyed the look that the woods added to the affluent Kentucky neighborhood and reportedly wanted to ensure that the construction of a bridge wouldn’t be a burden to the community and, of course, land values. Two decades later, that burden is being shifted elsewhere.

Proponents pushing to have the Drumanard property placed on the National Register of Historic Places were victorious in the early 1990s after they successfully pleaded that the wooded portion of the land was prepared by landscape firm managed by Frederic Law Olmsted, the same urban planner that put together New York City’s Central Park. Because the property was added to the list, a bridge was all but guaranteed to be guided elsewhere if it was ever actually approved for construction. It’s been more than a decade since Ms. Fitzhugh passed away, though, and Olmsted experts say that the section of land shows no evidence of what Jefferson County officials originally attested.

"Today the area is densely and indiscriminately vegetated with shrubs, vines and deciduous trees," writes the Amos Consulting Group of Colorado. "While this area is within the National Registry boundary, the north woods were not a part of Olmsted's original plan for Drumanard."

Now that the cat is out of the bag, Hoosiers are getting heated over having to pay for a project arguably unnecessary. "The people in Southern Indiana see that as a boondoggle to escalate the cost of the project to the point of trying to make it too costly to build," Clarksville, IN Council President John Gilkey tells the Star. "The property they have identified as being historically significant and necessitated the cost of the tunnel has almost no historical significance as far as people in this community are concerned."

No matter which side you’re on — philosophically or geographically — all of it doesn’t matter that much. Pending an almost guaranteed approval from the Federal Highway Administration, the Indiana residents are expected to still foot the Drumanard tunnel when construction on the bridge begins next year.