Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer sent a letter to the local medical center of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs on Thursday expressing concerns about the agency’s “preferred” location for a new $923 million replacement medical facility on Brownsboro Road, suggesting the city has “other sites worthy of the VA’s consideration.”
Fischer’s letter to Judy Williams at the Robley Rex VA Medical Center served as his public comment on the VA’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which had deemed the greenfield property near the intersection of Brownsboro and the Watterson Expressway as the “preferred alternative” for a new hospital. The public has until Jan. 11 to submit a comment on the EIS.
While the VA and local congressional delegation have hoped to push forward with their preferred site to begin construction on the long-delayed project, a growing number of voices in Louisville are pleading with the agency to reconsider due to concerns over traffic congestion and ease of access for patients and staff, with some saying a new hospital in the West End could positively transform the economically depressed area.
Though he did not outright call for the VA to switch locations, Fischer’s letter to the VA is thought to be his first public comments expressing doubts and concerns about the appropriateness of the Brownsboro site and suggesting potential alternatives. These concerns pertained to land use, traffic congestion, air quality, utility rate increases and transit access at this location — points that echo criticisms lodged by residents near the proposed site, along with Councilwoman Angela Leet, R-7, who represents the district.
While stating that he fully supports the construction of a “new best-in-class facility” for the VA, Fischer added that the goal of his letter was “to raise some issues that left unaddressed could impede the success of the Replacement VAMC.”
“I strongly believe that it is best to address these issues at this point in the process rather than dealing with unintended consequences that could delay this important project in the future,” wrote Fischer. “I appreciate the opportunity to share these concerns with you in the spirit of encouraging the accelerated development of a Replacement VAMC that can serve the current and future needs of our Veterans while promoting responsible, sustainable and compatible development for the community.”
Fischer’s issues with the Brownsboro site that he explained in most detail concerned traffic congestion and transit access, disputing the EIS conclusion that traffic conditions will actually improve with the addition of the new hospital — which is estimated to be associated with 10,000 average daily trips to and from it by staff and patients.
While the EIS listed a number of road projects for the area that the VA will advocate for, Fischer noted that six of these projects are not even listed on the state’s Six-Year Road Plan, while the most important project — the interchange at Brownsboro and the Watterson — has not yet developed a schedule for construction. Fischer also mentioned that this intersection is the second most congested in the city, according to a recent study by the Kentuckiana Regional Planning & Development Agency, with the ninth most congested intersection also being nearby.
Fischer also noted that the Metro Department of Public Works has raised concerns that the EIS traffic study was flawed, using old data from too small of an area to capture an accurate representation of current traffic conditions, in addition to only one site entrance for the proposed hospital. Fischer even mentioned that the VA’s own traffic study supports concerns about increased congestion, as the wait time for a vehicle to pass through its key intersection during peak morning and evening hours is estimated to double.
While the EIS noted that the VA will work with TARC to re-route a bus line to the Brownsboro site, Fischer stated this would amount to more than a 50 percent decrease in transit access compared to the current Robley Rex VA Medical Center on Zorn Avenue. The VA also plans to close its downtown Veterans Benefits Administration and three outpatient clinics throughout the city, which Fischer said “may cause additional hardship to individuals who must travel across town to receive care that they are accustomed to receiving closer to home.”
Addressing land use issues, Fischer stated that the VA’s EIS did not appear to consider the application of the city’s Planned Development District standards approved for the previous Midlands residential development at the Brownsboro site, as the hospital project is five times as large and features much taller buildings. While the EIS concluded that the land use impact of a the new hospital could be easily mitigated, Fischer state that “it is difficult to conclude that the construction of a development of the scale of the Replacement VAMC was anticipated by the community following the approval granted in the Midlands case. The two projects are substantially different in size, scope and scale.”
Fischer also expressed concerns about assumptions made in the EIS relating to the impact on air quality, stating that the local Air Pollution Control District “believes an Air Quality Analysis is warranted to understand the impact of traffic” generated by the project. He also noted that the EIS failed to use an EPA tool to examine several aspects of environmental justice, which “could have been used to gain a more comprehensive understanding of this issue.”
Though the EIS stated LG&E would fund the costs of extending utility infrastructure for the new facility, Fischer noted his concern that the company would pass these costs along to its ratepayers, requesting more specific details on how this will be funded.
Fischer concluded his letter by noting the EIS “mentioned that VA could sell the Brownsboro site or use it for another purpose should it choose to move forward with a replacement VAMC in another location,” and that no prior document issued by the VA relating to this project has included a similar statement. He also mentioned that while there has been no discussion on what would trigger the VA to consider selling the property and opening up the site selection process again, if the VA did so, he has some alternative sites in the city that he is ready to share.
“Should the VA decide that the Preferred Site in Louisville is no longer suitable for its needs in constructing the Replacement VAMC, my team and I believe we have other sites worthy of VA’s consideration,” wrote Fischer.
Councilwoman Leet told IL she is glad that Fischer now appears receptive to the VA opening up the site selection process, which she has been calling for since she came into office two years ago.
“I’m glad he’s pointing out these issues with the site, and I’m glad he’s on board,” said Leet. “I’m hopeful that he will speak to Rep. John Yarmuth, Sen. Mitch McConnell and Sen. Rand Paul, and try to get them on board, too.”
Asked for his reaction to Fischer’s letter, Yarmuth said in an email that “I appreciate Mayor Fischer raising valid questions about the EIS. I’m sure the VA will consider them.” IL asked Yarmuth’s spokesman Christopher Schuler if these questions were valid enough to make him believe the VA should open up their site selection process again, who replied “no.”
In a statement emailed to IL, Sen. McConnell said that he has long been an advocate for a new VA hospital and helped secure the initial funds for the project, but has never endorsed a specific location and just wants a facility built as soon as possible.
“Throughout the process I have listened to Kentucky veterans, and have strongly encouraged transparency by advocating that the VA hold public hearings to gauge veteran and community input as to the best location of the new medical center,” said McConnell. “I have never endorsed a specific location, but our veterans who have served our country so bravely deserve to receive quality health care in a new, modern facility and they have been waiting since 2006 for this medical center to be built. That is way too long. It is time to build the new facility.”
This story has been updated.