LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — The countdown is complete for the start of work on a new Ohio River bridge linking Louisville and Southern Indiana along a key transportation artery.
"Let's build those bridges," Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear proclaimed as he marked the official start of construction Tuesday evening.
A crane that will hoist steel during construction was used to raise the U.S., Kentucky and Indiana flags during a riverfront ceremony on a patch of ground that will become the eastern edge of the new span.
The downtown bridge is one of two new crossings that will rise over the Ohio in the next three years. The other bridge will go up east of Louisville, completing a loop around the city with the crossing that will link Utica. Ind., and Prospect, Kentucky It's called the East End Bridge.
"For 40 years, there's been a lot more talking than doing on the Ohio River bridges," Beshear said. "Today we change that."
The $2.6 billion bridges project will be one of the country's largest public works endeavors.
"It's the kind of project that President Obama had in mind when he talks about investing in the future, investing in our infrastructure, creating jobs and moving the nation forward," Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez said at the ceremony.
At its peak, the downtown bridge project will have a work force of close to 500, Mendez said.
The bridges will improve the flow of commerce across the region and nation and will help thousands of commuters get home more quickly, he said.
The new downtown bridge, connecting Louisville and Jeffersonville, Indiana, will carry six lanes of northbound traffic along Interstate 65.
It will go up alongside the existing Kennedy Bridge, which will be converted to six lanes of southbound traffic on I-65 as part of the massive project. The Kennedy Bridge opened to traffic in late 1963 — shortly after the assassination of its namesake, President John F. Kennedy.
Indiana Department of Transportation Deputy Commissioner Jim Stark said the cross-river neighbors came together to accomplish something that will benefit both states. For people on the Indiana side, the new bridge offers the promise of less rush-hour congestion, he said.
"Every morning, thousands of Southern Indiana commuters battle some of the state's most congested roads and bridges to reach their work places across the Ohio River," he said.
Last month, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence presided over a ceremony upriver to mark the start of construction on the East End Bridge.
Indiana is overseeing construction of the East End Bridge. Kentucky officials are handling construction of the downtown bridge.
Both new bridges are scheduled to open in 2016. The downtown work includes reconfiguring an often-clogged interchange where three interstates converge in Louisville.
Motorists will pay tolls to use the two new spans and the Kennedy Bridge after the project is completed. Toll rates have yet to be set.
Construction of the downtown span is expected to get under way around July 1, but pre-construction work on both sides of the river has been going on for several weeks.