Building The Bridges: Who'll pay to keep the East End tunnels safe, clear?

Building The Bridges: Who'll pay to keep the East End tunnels safe, clear?

NEAR PROSPECT, KY (WAVE) - Harrods Creek Fire & Rescue was taking the lead in mutual aid training Thursday, trying to remove an unconscious victim from a metal tube.

Its special truck came courtesy of a $250,000 federal gr ant. Indiana's Department of Transportation (INDOT) pays the wages and training costs for 15 of those firefighters, as part of the construction of the East End Crossing of the Ohio River Bridges Project. The entrance and exit on the Kentucky side are six stories below ground and run for one-third of a mile, making them the Commonwealth's second-longest tunnels.

"They're the ones that saw the need for it," Harrods Creek Chief Kevin Tyler told WAVE 3 News. "They're the ones that say they can't continue to sustain the financing of it."

Translation? The jobs go away when the bridge opens.

"Training's not finished yet, on the tunnels," said Dan Hartlage, spokesman for the construction partnership in charge of the East End Crossing. Harrods Creek and other emergency services agencies are scheduling "in-tunnel" training the weeks before the Crossing opens, tentatively set for Dec. 17.

"We will have a presence here for 30 years," Hartlage said.

But Tyler hasn't found a taker willing to shoulder the costs of more than a third of his department's manpower.

"(Kentucky) didn't see any way that they could fund anything," he said. "Because No. 1, they had never done that before. But they have."

Rewind 20 years, to the opening of the Cumberland Gap Tunnel -- Kentucky's longest, stretching just short of one mile from Middlesboro into Tennessee. It carries traffic from US 25E under Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. It replaced a 2.3-mile winding roadway that locals had nicknamed "Massacre Mountain" for the number and frequency of wrecks and traffic-related deaths and injuries.

The tunnel has its own fire brigade -- the 38 permanent staffers who operate and maintain the tunnel. From engineers to clerks, all have been cross-trained and certified as Emergency Medical Technicians, with certifications for vehicle extrications and HazMat cleanup -- though trucks hauling hazardous materials aren't allowed to travel the tunnel.

Initial training includes eight hours of in-class and in-field training, five days per week, for two months -- the equivalent of a college semester's coursework, a source familiar with the operation told WAVE 3 News Thursday. Refresher training is required every two years.

"It's built into the Transportation Cabinet's budget," Tyler said.

The Cumberland Gap Tunnel charges no tolls. Its average daily traffic load is 20-percent lighter than estimates for the East End Crossing at full operation.

"At 30,000 vehicles a day, all we need is a nickel," Tyler said. "A nickel of toll money would keep this asset in place."

The Transportation Cabinet appeared to answer his request in June. "Now that the work is complete, the risk of (a tunnel) collapse has passed," wrote Assistant State Highway Engineer Andy Barber. "The need for this type of emergency response has concluded."

Tyler is unsure whether the General Assembly would provide replacement funding, midway through its two-year budget cycle. The Nov. 8 election flipped control of the Kentucky House for the first time in 95 years. Republicans will hold a 64-36 seat super majority when the 2017 short session convenes in January.

"If something happens on the bridge and tunnel, if you or someone you love is trapped, they're gonna be there longer." Tyler said.

The Harrods Creek Fire Protection District covers 22 square miles, home to 25,000 people.

"Something's gonna have to happen," Tyler said. "To where, now instead of me standing here saying to y'all, 'I need money to continue,' I might be saying, 'I told you so.'"

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