BRADENTON, Fla. — One of the largest public works projects in the country — the $2.6 billion Ohio River Bridges project — has received federal clearance so construction can begin later this year.

The Federal Highway Administration approved a revised environmental review of the project by Kentucky and Indiana, and signed a Record of Decision Tuesday, state and federal officials announced.

Both states have begun separate procurement processes to build two new bridges across the Ohio River and modernize the regional interchange in downtown Louisville.

Various forms of financing will pay for the project, including toll-revenue bonds.

“This final step in the environmental review process allows Kentucky and Indiana to begin the process of improving safety and easing congestion for thousands of people who travel across the Ohio River every day,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “This project will put people to work and help improve our infrastructure — a win-win for these two states.”

State officials estimate the six-year project could bring more than 4,000 construction, engineering and supply-related jobs.

Though a Record of Decision was approved by the FHA in 2003, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer in January 2011 proposed revisions to cut $1.5 billion from original $4.1 billion cost.

The revised design required the states to submit the environmental plan for additional federal environmental review. It was also aimed at allowing a historic bi-state funding agreement to move forward and cut construction time in half over the original plan. The two states are splitting the $2.6 billion cost, and each is building a portion of the project.

The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet is overseeing what is called the downtown construction, which will increase I-65 capacity from eight to 12 lanes, build a new bridge with approaches, and reconstruct the Kennedy Interchange where I-64, I-65 and I-71 converge.

The Indiana Department of Transportation is overseeing construction of the East End Crossing, which spans the river between Prospect, Ky., and Utica, Ind.

The corridor is “a major mid-America crossroads,” according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Upgrading it has been planned for decades to relieve severe congestion through a major north-south freight corridor between Mobile, Ala., and Chicago.

Though funds have been spent for consultants and purchasing right of way over the years, actual construction has been delayed due to the cost.

Two years ago, the states formed the Louisville and Southern Indiana Bridges Authority to examine avenues to finance the project, and potentially issue bonds. However, the two states decided to take different paths constructing their portions. Kentucky is using a traditional design-build approach while Indiana is using a public-private partnership.

Meanwhile, the executive director of the Bridges Authority, Steve Schultz, announced his resignation this week. He will become a special advisor to Indiana as its project moves toward the construction phase.

The bi-state authority’s role going forward will be spelled out in a development agreement being negotiated between the two states, officials said.

Both states plan to award contracts for their respective crossings before the end of the year.

A groundbreaking is expected in August for the first element of the massive project — a $5.5 million road extension that will ultimately connect to State Road 265 and the future East End Bridge.

Construction on the main crossings is expected to begin in early 2013.

“After decades of discussion and debate, the Ohio River Bridges Project is about to become a reality,” Beshear said. “Through determination and partnership, Kentucky and Indiana have overcome the challenges and cleared the path for a safer, better transportation system for the two-state region.”

Daniels called this week’s federal approval another important step for the two states on the long-awaited project, and added, “We’re eager to break ground and move ahead with construction, but more importantly, this is about convenience, safety, jobs and unlocking greater economic potential in southeastern Indiana.”

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