A screenshot of the www.US51bridge.com website includes the existing Ohio River bridge between Wickliffe, Ky., and Cairo, Ill. In the distance is the bridge over the Mississippi River between Cairo and Bird’s Point, Mo.

Survey Seeks Input On New Bridge At Cairo, Ill.

The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet (KYTC) is asking for feedback on its proposals for a new U.S. 51/60/62 bridge over the Ohio River at River Mile 980.4, just upstream of its confluence with the Mississippi River. Among the entities that have a stake is the Western Kentucky Riverport Authority, which is developing a port near the site.

KYTC announced October 20 that the survey is available through 5 p.m. Central time October 30 at www.US51bridge.com. The website also provides current and updated information about the project, including alternatives considered, the proposed preferred alternative and an updated fact sheet.

KYTC Project Manager Chris Kuntz said he is pleased that 38 citizens had taken time to complete the survey by the morning of October 20.  However, he continued to urge anyone with an interest in the bridge to participate.

“It is important for the project team to get stakeholder input and feedback to gain an understanding of project impact on nearby communities and the region,” Kuntz said.  “Comments provided with the surveys will help guide the project team going forward through the planning and engineering process.”

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A copy of the printed materials is also available by contacting Keith Todd at 270-898-2431, emailing a request to kytc.District1info@ky.gov or visiting the Wickliffe Public Library, 257 North Fourth St., Wickliffe, Ky.

Responses from the public review survey will become a part of the official record for the project. Once compiled, the meeting record is available for review and copying after a Kentucky Open Records Request is submitted and approved.

The connection is the longest bridge in the state of Kentucky, according to transportation officials.

Recommendations Announced

In an online presentation October 15 to the U.S. 51 Ohio River “Cairo” Bridge Community Advisory/Environmental Justice Team, an advisory team made up of community members, consultant project manager Aaron Stover of Michael Baker International Inc. announced several recommendations for the bridge, which connects Wickliffe, in Kentucky, to Cairo, in Illinois.

Stover recommended that the bridge be built 1,000 feet upstream of the existing crossing, the route assessed as both the most economical to build and the preference of towboat captains who participated in navigating beneath three potential alignments during simulator training earlier this year.

“From a construction standpoint and a cost standpoint, this is one of the best alternatives, satisfying all the project goals and requirements,” Stover said.

Additionally, he said, it does a good job of maintaining traffic flow.

“We are able to construct this bridge with minimal impacts to the existing bridge,” Stover said of the recommended location.

That will be important both for traffic on the bridge and below it as towboat pilots navigate through the spans of the existing bridge as well as the piers for the new bridge as they are being built, pilots indicated as part of the simulator study, held at the Seamen’s Church Institute’s Center for Maritime Education in June.

Stover noted that 80 percent of inland barge traffic in the United States passes through the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers each year and that barge companies have fleeting areas on both the Illinois and Kentucky sides of the river near the bridge.

Todd, a spokesman for the KYTC district 1 office in McCracken County, said some of those fleeting areas would be lost to the new bridge. However, he said, once the existing bridge is removed, there would be additional space at that site.

Stover also recommended a bridge with a 40-foot-wide deck, capable of two, 12-foot lanes with 8-foot shoulders, and not a wider one with a 52-foot deck with two 12-foot lanes and 14 feet of shoulders that could eventually be expanded to four lanes with narrower shoulders as needed. The existing bridge has a 22.5-foot deck with two, 10-foot driving lanes.

The narrower bridge option would still be wide enough for a lot of farm equipment to cross without having to close the bridge to oncoming traffic, Todd said.

“On the existing bridge, farmers have to send a pilot vehicle across, stop oncoming traffic, then bring their equipment across,” he said.

In determining the best width for the bridge, consultants took new traffic counts and projected traffic out to 2045.

“Even if you push the anticipated traffic growth to the maximum, there would be about 9,000 to 10,000 vehicles per day by then,” Todd said. “The two-lane design would comfortably carry up to 18,000 vehicles per day, so there is still room for growth beyond the projections.”

Additionally, Todd said, there aren’t enough four-lane roads to connect to nearby with a bridge that could grow to four lanes.

“Roadways that connect to the bridge on the Kentucky side are all two-lane,” he said. “It doesn’t make much sense to build a four-lane bridge when it only has two-lane roads running to it.”

He noted that U.S. 60/62 in Illinois has four lanes, but the Kentucky side has no state-maintained roads with four-lane sections nearby. The nearest is west of Kevil, Ky., 20 miles away, with downtown Wickliffe between that road segment and the new bridge. The current six-year road plan for Kentucky does not include any four-lane road segments west of Kevil, Todd said. There are also no planning studies pending for that area, he said.

“There is also a matter of cost,” Todd said, noting a total estimated project increase of approximately 27 percent if the wider bridge were to be built. “The two-lane bridge is estimated at $273 million. The initial two-lane with future expansion to a four-lane option would be $341 million. Both Kentucky and Illinois have budget considerations. The traffic projection for 2045 would be 9,045. The capacity of a two-lane is about 18,000, so there is substantial capacity for traffic volume expansion.”

Roughly 7,000 vehicles cross the existing bridge daily. About 35 percent of that is commercial vehicle traffic.

Finally, Todd said, there are potential design concerns in the future with the 52-foot bridge option. Initially, when striped as a two-lane roadway, the bridge’s shoulders would be wide enough for bicycles, emergency stopping and agricultural traffic. However, to switch to a four-lane bridge in the future, the smaller shoulders would not allow for them.

Port Authority Prefers Wider Bridge

David Rambo, chairman of the Western Kentucky Riverport Authority, expressed disappointment over the recommendation to build the narrower bridge.

“We’re mustering as many folks to support the position of having it four-lane as we can,” he said, urging people to visit the site and indicate the four-lane preference on the included survey.

The riverport authority, composed of officials from Ballard, Carlisle, Hickman and Fulton counties, is seeking to build a riverport at one of two sites within the Wickliffe city limits near the bridge, just downstream of the rivers’ confluence. One is where Beech Creek flows into the Lower Mississippi at Mile 951.4, and the other is where Willow Creek flows into the Mississippi at Mile 951.5, said Bill Miller, who the riverport authority is working with as a consultant.

The group is hoping to capitalize on the state of Illinois’ announcement in August that it has provided $40 million to the Alexander-Cairo Port District for the establishment of a 350-acre riverport in southern Illinois near Cairo, just upstream of the confluence at Upper Mississippi Mile 5.7 on the left descending bank, an area commonly known as Eliza Point.

The Kentucky port officials say that rather than creating competition, a second port in the area provides more opportunity for customers interested in doing business near the rivers’ confluence. A four-lane bridge could be key to easily moving truck traffic between the two ports, creating a multi-modal connection, Rambo said. Also, noting that he was speaking for himself and not on behalf of the entire board, he said he viewed a four-lane bridge as important to economic development of the four Kentucky counties touching the Mississippi River.

“That might really open up some commerce into the river counties,” he said.

He also noted that although nearby highways are not currently four lanes, U.S. 60 is four-lane through McCracken County to near the Ballard County line already. Although extending it further is not in the state’s current six-year plan, he agreed, expanding it through Ballard County has been discussed extensively, he said. If it did expand to four lanes, a four-lane bridge would then provide a connection to Interstate 24 in Paducah on the Kentucky side of the river.

On the Illinois side of the bridge, Interstate 57 is a four-lane interstate highway with an exit in Cairo.

“We’re only going to get one shot at this in the next two or three generations, and if we’re going to get a good corridor into our river counties, it needs to be done now,” Rambo said.

Other Considerations

Construction on the new bridge is anticipated to begin in 2026 or 2027, Stover said.

It will take one to three years for initial planning and engineering and another one to three years to get a final design that would be ready for construction, Todd said. Also required before construction would be time for right-of-way acquisition and utility relocation.

Still to be determined is what type of bridge would be built at the location. Arch, truss and cable-stay bridges are all under consideration, Stover said.

“The U.S. Coast Guard will offer a suggested width for the main span to accommodate river traffic,” Todd said. “That main span width will play a role in the design of the new bridge. Certain designs are better based on the length of the span.”

Although the design remains to be announced, the consulting team did make a recommendation as to how the bridge should tie in with existing roadways on the Illinois side, however, believing that slowly increasing traffic congestion makes the current T intersection problematic by 2024.

Although one alternative looked at adding a traffic signal, that could create long waits for some motorists, Stover said. The team also looked at a continuous-right intersection alternative without a traffic signal. Ultimately, the team recommended a roundabout large enough to handle tractor-trailers.

“It has a lot of additional capacity, and on top of that it would allow a focal point for the community for future development,” Stover said of using a roundabout. It would also improve safety from the existing intersection configuration as there would be fewer potential traffic conflict points, he said.

He noted, however, that all the intersection options are interchangeable and could be used with any of the alternatives for the bridge alignment.

The intersection will connect the bridge to other segments of U.S. 51 to the north and south and U.S. 60/62 to the east and west, including the approach to the 1929 bridge over the Mississippi River and into southeast Missouri, located 1,000 feet from the existing Ohio River bridge’s Cairo terminus. Representatives from the Illinois Department of Transportation noted the department is continuing to maintain that bridge to extend its useful life, including spending $5 million next year to work on the bridge joints.

The current Wickliffe-Cairo bridge is 82 years old and listed in fair condition, although it has narrow lanes and shoulders. It opened to traffic on November 11, 1938. Deck and joint work designed to increase the bridge’s life expectancy until a new bridge can be built has recently taken place, limiting the traffic to alternating flows of one lane each for part of the summer and early fall. It was scheduled to reopen to two-way traffic October 25.

Caption for photo: A screenshot of the  www.US51bridge.com website includes the existing Ohio River bridge between Wickliffe, Ky., and Cairo, Ill. In the distance is the bridge over the Mississippi River between Cairo and Bird’s Point, Mo.