After nine months of delays, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has finally released a copy of an environmental study for the proposed site of Louisville’s new VA hospital, near the intersection of Brownsboro Road and the Watterson Expressway, deeming this site its “preferred alternative.”
The draft Environmental Impact Statement examined the cumulative effect of a new VA medical center at the Brownsboro site and the “St. Joseph” site further northeast on Factory Lane (though the latter is known to no longer be available). It also considered maintaining operations at the VA’s current location off Zorn Avenue. Though staying at the Zorn site was deemed the “environmentally preferred alternative” in the draft report, the Brownsboro site maintained its status as the VA’s “preferred alternative.”
The release of the impact statement on Friday kicked of a 45-day public comment period on the report, and two public meetings will be held on Nov. 15 near the proposed Brownsboro site for citizens to receive more information and submit comments. Both two-hour meetings will take place at Christ Church United Methodist, with the first meeting beginning at noon and the second one beginning at 6 p.m. The draft statement will not be finalized until those public comments are received and processed, which is likely to take place early next year, after which construction could conceivably begin.
The draft impact statement, completed by contractor Labat Environmental Inc., found that the cumulative impacts of a new $935 million VA medical center at Brownsboro are “expected to be non-existent, negligible or minor” in a number of areas — such as aesthetics, air quality, geology and soils, hydrology and water quality, floodplains and wetlands, socioeconomics and utilities — so long as appropriate mitigation measures are taken.
It also found the impacts of the new hospital in these areas “would be similar to those from current VA operations or to other new private and commercial developments that may occur within the service area.”
The report also found “potential cumulative effects” related to the issues of land use and traffic for the Brownsboro site. Referring to land use, the draft stated that zoning waivers would likely have to be granted, as “the design heights of the VAMC buildings and parking decks would not be compatible with the height limitations in existing zoning, and would therefore be an adverse impact to adjacent land use.”
As for the impact on traffic at the proposed site, the draft stated the “levels of service would be acceptable” at the entrance and exit to the hospital campus “with interchange improvements” at Brownsboro Road and the Watterson Expressway.
It added that travel times and intersection delays would be “significantly improved by the planned construction of the single-point urban interchange,” and be comparable to “a similar mixed-use development that would be anticipated to locate at the Brownsboro Site.”
The environmental impact findings for the Brownsboro site were largely similar to those for the St. Joseph site, though Congressman Jeff Miller — the Republican chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee — had strongly criticized the VA for only including the latter site as an alternative for a new hospital, as some of that land is already slated for other private developments.
Miller has criticized the appropriateness of the Brownsboro site and the lack of a downtown site also being considered in the impact statement, as stakeholders such as the University of Louisville had suggested as their preferred location.
In a statement to IL, Congressman John Yarmuth commended the VA for listening to Louisville residents and taking the additional step of conducting the environmental impact study.
“My two most important priorities since the start of this project have been ensuring that our veterans will have access to this new state-of-the-art hospital as quickly as possible, while making sure that the legitimate concerns of local residents are fully considered,” said Yarmuth. “I urge all local veterans, community leaders, and residents to take advantage of the 45-day public comment period to ask questions and weigh in on the project.”
Asked if Yarmuth now believes that the project should go forward as planned at the Brownsboro site after the public comment period is complete, he answered that he did, “but the public comments should be fully considered to see if any improvements can be made to the project or process.”
Eric Gunderson of Grow Smart Louisville — a group of citizens that has been critical of the Brownsboro site for years — told IL in a statement that “given the VA’s history on these projects throughout the country, we’re still extremely skeptical about their promises to mitigate impacts on water and air quality, traffic and noise.”
“While (the) report addresses environmental concerns for the hospital location, it obviously doesn’t rectify the most important issues regarding quality of care for the veterans nor economic impact on the community as a whole,” Gunderson said. “Grow Smart Louisville will continue to fight this poorly conceived project.”
Irene Yeager, whose home in Crossgate would be less than 100 yards from the new hospital off Brownsboro, told IL that the impact study merely regurgitated findings from a previous environmental study of the site and did not sufficiently document the traffic impact. She added that the draft cannot be considered a valid document if the only alternative site for a new hospital was the St. Joseph property, which is no longer available, and cited how the land at Brownsboro was purchased — which the VA Inspector General found was overpaid for by as much as $3 million — as an example of how the entire process has been mishandled by the VA.
“Traffic alone should shut down this entire project,” Yeager said. “It started as a crooked deal and continues to be crooked as a dog’s leg. We are not done until all the skeletons are uncovered.”
Congressman Miller said in a statement to IL that the findings of the EIS “are puzzling, particularly the fact that it examines the St. Joseph site, which is no longer available, as an alternative. Should VA proceed with construction at the Brownsboro Road site, I’m concerned the project will be riddled with the same sort of cost overruns and delays that have plagued many other VA hospital projects, such as those in Denver, New Orleans and Orlando. That’s why it’s incumbent upon VA to explain why it’s a good use of taxpayer dollars to build at Brownsboro Road, something the EIS fails to do.”
IL asked officials at Louisville’s Robley Rex VA Medical Center, Sen. Mitch McConnell and Sen. Rand Paul for comment on the impact study and the process in the months ahead, but has not yet received a reply.
This story has been updated with Congressman Miller’s comments.