A federal judge has ruled that a group supporting the Ohio River Bridges Project can intervene in the lawsuit between the conservation group River Fields and the Federal Highway Administration. In May, Kentuckians for Progress filed a request to join the suit against the federal governmentas co-defendants to challenge River Fields and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, who filed the suit two years ago. Preservationists claim the federal agency couldn’t justify portions of the bridges project, relied on misleading information, failed to adequately consider potential impacts and did not prepare an updated environmental report.
On September 12, U.S. District Judge John Heyburn III found that KFP has a “legitimate interest” in the case which could “be beneficial if this litigation would proceed beyond its current stage.” The ruling was made over strenuous objections by attorneys for the plaintiffs, who argued for the past four months that Kentuckians for Progress had no legal interest in the matter.
Attorney Vic Maddox, who represents Kentuckians for Progress, says the ruling now gives them the rights and privileges of the other defendants to pursue a dismissal of the case.
“Now we will be able to participate presumably in the confidential mediation sessions and anything else that takes place in court,” he says. “With that Kentuckians for Progress has the right to pursue the remedies that any defendant would have, including a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, which is something we intend to pursue.”
For months, Kentuckians for Progress, which is led by former Jefferson County Judge Executive Rebecca Jackson, has hammered conservationists to drop the litigation through an aggressive ad campaign. Its membership includes union, business and development leaders.
With little success in getting River Fields to budge, however, the group adopted a legal strategy to join the suit, which many, including their own attorney, were skeptical would work. The original motion criticized the FHA’s representation of the case and argued it wasn’t adequately arguing their interests to get the project moving.
Attorney Elizabeth Merritt, who represents National Trust, says her clients felt the KFP had nothing to contribute, but it’s too soon to tell how it will effect mediation discussions.
“We felt that their participating would be disruptive because they had not participated in the earlier administrative review. They didn’t even exist at the time when this project was going through the earlier environmental review,” she says. “And the judge had earlier rejected a request to intervene by another group, the Coalition for the Advancement of Regional Transportation, and so we were extremely surprised that the judge granted the intervention request.”
The judge’s ruling also allows the Indiana Department of Transportation and the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet to intervene in the case. Merritt says the preservationists didn’t object to their motions because it’s “perfectly normal” for state agencies to be involved in suits challenging federally funded projects.
“We don’t know what to expect now,” says Merritt.
Earlier this week, Metro Council members and civic leaders pointed the finger at River Fields’ suit while rallying behind a resolution in support of the bridges project, which has been underscored due to the closure of the Sherman Minton Bridge.
Local officials have criticized the suit as the culprit behind delays to the $3.6 billion project, which encompasses the construction of an east Louisville bridge, a downtown bridge and reconfiguration of Spaghetti Junction.
The group of civic and business leaders behind KFP have made it clear that their intention is to challenge the proceedings in order to get the project started.
“Kentuckians for Progress’ goal in the lawsuit is to see that it is dismissed at the earliest possible time. As soon as we’re able to create an appropriate record for a motion to dismiss then we’ll make that decision,” says Maddox.