A Louisville, Kentucky, group is making another push to prod Norfolk Southern into opening the K&I Bridge to hikers and bikers.
Greater Louisville, Inc., wants the bridge to serve as a link in a 100-mile loop trail around the Louisville metropolitan area.
The bridge would connect the Kentucky and Indiana shores of the Ohio River as part of a 13-mile trail that is part of that loop.
But despite more a decade of lobbying by public officials on both sides of the river, NS has refused to allow the K&I bridge to be used as part of a trail.
The bridge spans the river between New Albany, Indiana; and the Portland neighborhood of Louisville.
At one time, it was used by the Monon, Baltimore & Ohio, and the Southern. Formally known as the Kentucky and Indiana Terminal Bridge, it opened in 1912 .
Until 1979 the bridge also was used for vehicular traffic. It was used for interurban railway traffic until 1946. The bridge still has a lane used by railroad motor vehicles.
GLI said it will seek to “identify impediments, incentives and other remedies to permit pedestrians back on the K&I bridge, allowing full completion of a pedestrian loop.”
Louisville officials have noted that the Big Four Bridge, which is no longer used for railroad traffic, has been converted to pedestrian use.
The K&I Bridge would connect the Kentuckiana River Trail in Louisville and the Ohio River Greenway in Clark and Floyd counties in Indiana.
But NS doesn’t want to see pedestrians on the K&I Bridge. “Norfolk Southern’s K& I Bridge exists today for a single purpose — to provide safe transport for freight trains over the Ohio River,” NS spokesman David Pidgeon said in a statement. “NS generally does not support recreational trails next to active rail lines because of serious safety concerns, and we remain focused on providing safe, efficient and reliable freight transportation to our customers in Louisville and southern Indiana.”
Pidgeon noted that some trains using the bridge carry hazmat shipments. “We not only have safety concerns about public access along active right-of-way but also serious, prohibitive concerns about security and liability.” he said.
Supporters of using the K&I bridge for pedestrian traffic counter that the laws of Kentucky and Indiana generally protect property owners if someone is injured while using a recreational trail.
After active lobbying of NS failed, some Louisville officials considered using eminent domain to acquire an easement on the portion of the bridge not being used.
Kentucky public officials even battled with NS in 2008 over whether the bridge could be condemned
Assistant Jefferson County Attorney William T. Warner argued in a letter that city law allowed that course of action.
But an NS attorney, Thomas W. Ambler, responded that federal law prohibits any condemnation.
In the meantime, trails continue to open in Louisville and Southern Indiana, including one in 2013 that goes across the Big Four Bridge.
That trail has attracted more than 2 million visitors and 100,000 bicycles.
Two more miles of the Greenway will be built in Indiana this year, including a section in New Albany that will end near the north portral to the K&I Bridge.
Trail advocates say that converting the K&I to pedestrian access would be less costly than was the case with the Big Four Bridge, which required elevated access ramps. The K&I Bridge is at street level.
Converting the K&I Bridge to pedestrian use is “not a priority” for One Southern Indiana, the chamber of commerce for Clark and Floyd counties. Nor is the group including that on its advocacy agenda.
Although Wendy Dant Chesser, the chamber’s president and CEO, would like to see a loop across the river completed, she said NS owns the bridge.
“We have to approach this as any public project that would want access to private property,” she said. “So it has to be done with respect and the interest of the owner in mind.”
The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy said that numerous trails exist next to active railroad routes. The number of such trails rose by 260 percent between 2000 and 2013.
Large railroads usually oppose trails next to their right of way, but some smaller railroads have been more receptive to the idea.
One example of a trail sharing a bridge with a railroad is the Harahan Bridge over the Mississippi River in Memphis, Tennessee, where a pedestrian trail will open later this year.
Bridge owner Union Pacific was initially opposed to allowing a trail on the bridge, but agreed after trail architects included a fence that can’t be climbed and which protects cyclists and walkers from any debris from passing trains.
NS also operates rail lines next to trails, including the Schuylkill River Trail between Philadelphia and Pottsville, Pennsylvania.
Robert Folwell, trails project manager for the Schuylkill River Greenway Association, said he’s is unaware of any safety concerns being raised by NS.
Folwell said the trail is about 20 feet from the NS tracks in some places and separated by a chain-link fence.
NS spokesman Pidgeon would not discuss safety issues pertaining to NS lines next to mixed-use trails nor would he comment on research by Rails-to-Trails that identified only one death in recent decades involving a person using a trail adjacent to railroad tracks.
The U.S. Department of Transportation did a study that found one case of a claim involving a rail-with-trail.
“The railroad was held harmless from any liability for the accident through the terms of its indemnification agreement,” the report says.
Pidgeon did say that through last October 11 people had been killed in Indiana, and 10 in Kentucky, while trespassing on railroad property in 2015.
Bill Hughes, a former NS employee who worked with grade crossing and trespassing matters while at the railroad, speculated that the NS opposition to sharing the K&I Bridge with a trail is rooted in its desire to avoid lawsuits involving people who are injured or killed while trespassing.
Hughes is familiar with the K&I Bridge proposal and believes the project could satisfy the railroad’s safety concerns if there is a fence, regular safety patrols and emergency telephones placed on the bridge.
“This is a doable project,” he said. “It was when I worked for them, and it still is.”