The Department of Veterans Affairs has taken another step toward building Louisville’s replacement medical center on greenfield property at the intersection of Brownsboro Road and the Watterson Expressway, as its final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) reiterated that this is its preferred site for the nearly $1 billion project.
Just as the long-delayed draft EIS concluded in October, the final EIS stated that the Brownsboro property was the VA’s preferred location, beating out the only two alternatives: property further northeast on Factory Lane — which is not owned by the VA and already slated for another development — and remaining in the 65-year-old Robley Rex VA Medical Center on Zorn Ave., which the VA has already stated is far past outdated and not a viable option.
As was specifically mentioned in the final EIS, the proposed Brownsboro location has been “associated with public controversy,” facing wide-ranging criticism from neighbors and public officials. The most common criticism has been that this intersection already has some of the worst traffic issues in Louisville, which would not just annoy residents in the area, but make commuting difficult for patients and staff.
Those views made up a large majority of the comments at a public hearing hosted by the VA on its draft EIS in November, while a variety of alternative properties for the VA have been pitched, such as vacant land in Louisville’s West End, a former industrial site in south Jefferson County, and properties in Bullitt County and Hardin County.
However, the final EIS reiterated the same points from last October, stating that while a new hospital at the Brownsboro site would create adverse impacts affecting traffic, air quality, aesthetics, land use, utilities and noise level, mitigation measures could be taken to “substantially decrease the magnitude of these impacts.”
While the EIS named remaining at the Zorn Avenue “the environmentally preferable alternative,” national and local VA officials have repeatedly stated that staying in the outdated facility is not an option. After a 30-day review period for the final EIS, the VA will publish “a record of decision that states the alternative selected for implementation and identifies associated mitigation commitments.”
The EIS noted that most speakers at the public meetings opposed the Brownsboro site, as well as “an overwhelming majority of written comments” that the VA received, while “only a few” supported that location. It further stated that a third of the comments the VA received offered new alternative locations to consider in Jefferson, Bullitt and Hardin counties.
Councilwoman Angela Leet, R-7 — who has been the most vocal elected official criticizing the VA selection process and appropriateness of the Brownsboro site — told IL that if the VA moves ahead with construction at this property, she “will be working with officials in Washington on mitigation” measures for that site. She still maintains that this location will not provide the best care for local veterans, nor will the VA’s plans to close all of its outpatient clinics in Shively, Newburg and St. Matthews.
“The model that they’re moving forward with is not the best of care for the veterans,” said Leet. “They’ll be closing all of the outpatient clinics, and I don’t think people have realized how that will impact them. Especially those individuals who are most economically disadvantaged. They’ll be more impacted than others.”
State Sen. Julie Raque Adams, R-Louisville — whose district includes the Brownsboro property — also tweeted criticism of that location Friday morning, stating, “I still don’t agree that this is the appropriate site for our new VA hospital.”
Eric Gunderson of Grown Smart Louisville also criticized the decision, telling IL that the VA “continues to surprise and disappoint us with their pursuit of this poor location choice for their project. Grow Smart Louisville is pursuing all options to continue to fight for local veterans’ quality of care and the community as a whole. We hope our local political leaders will show the same resolve.”
On the other hand, Congressman John Yarmuth had no critical words for the VA’s final EIS or the Brownsboro site in his statement released on Friday, calling it “another step forward in providing our veterans with the care they are owed in a state-of-the-art facility they deserve.”
“Since Day One, my goal has been to see that our veterans are provided with the services they need and that the views and concerns of Louisvillians are heard,” said Yarmuth. “I’m glad the VA has offered a final study that details the project and thoroughly responds to local residents’ concerns raised throughout the extended public comment period.”
Asked for Sen. Mitch McConnell’s reaction to the VA’s EIS, his spokesman sent IL a statement from the senator that was identical to the one sent earlier in December. While he has “never endorsed a specific location,” McConnell states that “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.”
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, whose written comments on the VA’s draft EIS brought up many major concerns about the Brownsboro site — mostly focused on traffic concerns — has not yet read the EIS, according to his spokesman Chris Poynter. Once his team has had a chance to review the 354-page document, Poynter says the mayor will comment, though he added that “we also realize this decision is completely a federal one.”
Officials at the Robley Rex VA Medical Center have not responded to multiple emails from IL asking for their reaction to the final EIS and the next steps forward for the hospital replacement project.