Heading west from Lexington? Here's how to avoid Louisville's traffic mess

Detours disrupt business, travel

kward1@herald-leader.comSeptember 18, 2011 

John F Kennedy Bridge in Louisville KY

The John F. Kennedy Bridge between Louisville and Indiana is one detour route for the closed Sherman Minton Bridge.

FARON COLLINS

Central Kentuckians planning on driving to Chicago, St. Louis, Indianapolis or other points west and northwest over the coming months will probably want to give their planned routes a second glance before heading out.

The emergency shutdown of the Interstate 64 Sherman Minton Bridge that spans the Ohio River between Louisville and New Albany, Ind., could put a serious snarl in the typical paths taken from Lexington to some major cities.

Drivers coming from the east who would normally just stay on I-64 through Louisville and cross into Indiana can't do that for now.

And crossing the river on the main detour route — I-65's Kennedy Bridge — is more challenging than it sounds because exit ramps from westbound I-64 to I-65 are closed.

Approaching downtown Louisville's snarled Spaghetti Junction, only travelers from I-71 can exit directly onto I-65.

Christopher Oakford, spokesman for AAA in Lexington, said the organization isn't suggesting that drivers avoid passing through Louisville altogether, but they do need to plan ahead.

"You should leave in plenty of time ... just to make sure that you aren't badly affected by the delays," he said.

For those traveling to the St. Louis area, passing through Louisville is still "the quickest, straightest route," he said. After crossing the Kennedy Bridge, drivers would stay on I-65 to Cementville, Ind., then head west on I-265 to hook back up with westbound I-64.

But people who just don't want to go through the Louisville-area mess could take Bluegrass Parkway, Western Kentucky Parkway and Natcher Parkway to Owensboro, then travel up through Evansville, Ind., to get onto I-64.

For people heading to Indianapolis or Chicago, it's an easy choice: avoid Louisville and head up I-75 to the Cincinnati area, then take I-74 to Indianapolis, Oakford said.

The I-64 Sherman Minton Bridge was shut down on Sept. 9 after inspectors found a crack in the bridge's steel. Officials have said it could be months before repairs are made and the bridge is reopened.

More than 90,000 vehicles normally cross the bridge each day, and the closing has shifted that traffic to the I-65 Kennedy Bridge and U.S. 31 Clark Memorial Bridge at Second Street in Louisville.

To help deal with the resulting backups, officials are implementing a number of changes, including restricting ramps and lanes at major junctions of I-64, I-65 and I-71; adjusting the timing of traffic lights on downtown streets on both sides of the river; and adding pylons to the Kennedy Bridge to keep drivers from switching lanes.

For many people who live and work in Louisville, the situation has been a serious disruption to their normal driving patterns.

Dr. Britt Brockman of Louisville, chairman of the University of Kentucky Board of Trustees, is managing partner of the John-Kenyon American Eye Institute.

He said the practice's main surgery center is just across the river in New Albany, and having the bridge shut down is severely impacting the facility.

"It's basically cut off the ability of the Kentucky patients to get to the office," he said.

Because of that, Brockman said staff members are now finding out where patients live before they schedule them for surgery.

Kentucky patients, who represent about two-thirds of the surgery center's patient base, are being scheduled for surgery at around 11 a.m., rather than 7 or 8 a.m. as they normally would, he said, to allow them to come in after rush hour.

Brockman said the practice is also shuffling doctors around: a doctor from Indiana usually staffs a clinic in Louisville on Friday afternoons, but because of the traffic problems, a Kentucky doctor will staff that clinic instead.

"It's going to disrupt businesses on both sides of the river," he said.

Kathy Harrison lives in Lexington but commutes to downtown Louisville daily for her job at the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness.

She said her co-workers from southern Indiana normally have a 10-minute drive to work, but it took them an hour on Monday.

Suddenly, she said, traffic patterns have become "the center of a lot of people's lives."

"I felt really guilty this morning because it did not affect me at all," she said Monday night.

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