- Associated Press - Thursday, June 30, 2016

HENDERSON, Ky. (AP) - The governors of Kentucky and Indiana signed an agreement on Thursday to begin preliminary work to build an Ohio River bridge along Interstate 69, expanding their states’ infrastructure partnership.

Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence said their states will split the approximately $17 million price tag for preliminary design work and an environmental review for the proposed crossing in the Evansville, Indiana, and Henderson, Kentucky, area.

The Republican governors signed the memorandum of agreement at an event outside Ellis Park racetrack at Henderson.

State and local leaders on both sides of the Ohio River applauded the agreement, though key factors such as the total project cost and how to pay for it will be determined later.

Likewise, a timetable for construction and a route to connect the bridge to existing sections of I-69 will come later, officials said.

Both states have expanded their sections of I-69 in southwestern Indiana and western Kentucky, but a span over the Ohio River to bring to close the gap has been lacking.

“This is an idea whose time has come,” Pence said. “Now that we can see light at the end of the tunnel for completing I-69 to Indianapolis, this is the next logical step for the state of Indiana.”

It will be “some years before this really starts to take form,” Bevin said, but the agreement means the bridge project will move forward.

“We won’t look back,” he said. “This is an extraordinary opportunity.”

Local officials from both sides of the river said a bridge connecting I-69 would boost the region’s economy.

The governors did not offer a cost estimate for the span. One advocacy coalition estimates a four-lane bridge would cost about $850 million.

Previously, Kentucky and Indiana formed an alliance for a $2.3 billion project to build two new Ohio River bridges connecting the states in the Louisville, Kentucky, area. The new Abraham Lincoln Bridge connecting Louisville and Jeffersonville, Indiana, opened for traffic late last year. A new East End bridge between Utica, Indiana, and Prospect, Kentucky, is scheduled to be completed later this year.

The Louisville-area project also includes improvements to the John F. Kennedy Bridge and reconstructed interchanges in Louisville.

Under the new agreement, Indiana will take the lead in the preliminary design and environmental review for the proposed I-69 bridge, though Pence called it a “full partnership” with Kentucky. Pence said that preliminary work could take two to three years to complete, but said officials would be “driving hard to accelerate” the timetable.

Bevin, who was elected last year, said efforts will be split 50-50.

“Indiana without question has the most experienced department associated with doing these types of projects,” Bevin said. “Ours is a new administration. While we have stellar people … Indiana has been doing this year after year.”

It has not yet been determined which state would lead future project phases.

For now, neither state plans to purchase land for the project until the environmental review is completed and the Federal Highway Administration agrees to a site, officials said. That would allow Indiana and Kentucky to use up to 90 percent federal funds to purchase land, if needed, on each side of the river, they said.

Once the environmental review is completed, the states will discuss how to divide costs to complete the project, officials said. An estimated project cost will be determined as part of the preliminary phase, they said.

Both states vowed to gather public input on how to pay for the new span.

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