This story has been updated.
Eleven years after the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs first began the process of finding a new location for its medical center in Louisville, the federal agency has finally chosen the greenfield property near the intersection of Brownsboro Road and the Watterson Expressway.
The agency’s official decision was signed by VA Secretary David Shulkin last Thursday and released to the public on Friday, ending what had been years of debate and discussion about the controversial site and possible alternatives sites for the nearly $1 billion project.
While Kentucky’s congressional delegation has appeared supportive of pushing forward with the project at the Brownsboro property in recent years, this site has also been fiercely opposed by many neighbors and criticized by some elected officials. Critics have argued that veterans would receive better care if they were closer to specialists, physicians and facilities downtown and that the Brownsboro site, which already is one of the most congested areas in the city, could not handle the significant traffic increase with a new hospital.
Although Mayor Greg Fischer wrote a letter to the VA last year pointing out his concerns with the agency’s preferred site, he told reporters Friday morning that it is time to move forward with the Brownsboro site.
“The project has been going on for over 10 years,” Fischer said. “The veterans, the VA needs a new location.”
Fischer added that the city will not mount any challenge or appeal to the VA decision.
“The VA has control of the property,” Fischer said. “When or where they move is going to be up to them. Now, they listen to citizens, obviously, they’re very sensitive to that. So the next move will be up to them.”
Mayoral spokesman Chris Poynter told Insider that Fischer will not release any statement beyond what he told reporters Friday morning.
The local elected official who has been most vocal critic of the Brownsboro location in recent years is Councilwoman Angela Leet, R-7, who announced in early October that she is running for mayor next year, challenging the two-term incumbent Fischer. Leet told Insider Friday that she remained concerned about several aspects of the VA’s final decision and would continue to press the agency to use proper mitigation measures to lessen any negative impact on residents and patients.
In particular, Leet was concerned that the VA finalized their decision to shut down two outpatient clinics for veterans in Shively and Newburg, saying she would lobby the agency to reverse that decision, as a veteran would have to take a two-hour TARC ride from Shively to the new hospital site. She also wants the VA to make sure that nearby residents don’t lose their property values and make sure this area “gets the federal funding necessary to insure that the roads are beefed up accordingly to deal with the traffic concerns.”
Leet also hopes that the VA rethinks its current plan to simultaneously conduct the construction of the new medical facility and a major renovation of the interchange next to it, which would exacerbate the existing traffic issues and “completely chokehold that area.” Leet — who has criticized the transparency and accountability of the federal agency throughout the site selection process — also regretted that the VA was not “nimble enough” to adapt to the changing marketplace over the past year a take a serious look at Jewish Hospital as an alternative site. KentuckyOne Health put Jewish up for sale in May.
“This is definitely something positive for veterans, I just still don’t believe it’s the most cost-effective,” said Leet. “And because of the outpatient-based clinics closing, I don’t believe it’s providing them the best-in-class care that they deserve.”
Rep. John Yarmuth released a statement indicating that he is glad the process surrounding the site selection is finally over.
“Since helping secure funding for this project nearly a decade ago, my two main priorities have been ensuring that area veterans will be able to benefit from the state-of-the-art hospital as soon as possible and that Louisville residents have their voices fully heard at every step,” stated Yarmuth. “I’m glad that this thorough review process has been completed, and I look forward to continuing to work with all the stakeholders as this important project finally moves forward.”
In a statement to Insider, Sen. Mitch McConnell said he has long been a major advocate for a new VA medical center in Louisville and helped secure the initial funds for the project, adding 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. Today’s announcement moves us one step closer. It’s time to build the new facility.”
A spokesperson for Sen. Rand Paul has not returned a request for comment on the VA’s decision. This summer, Paul requested that the VA meet with the University of Louisville’s interim president to discuss the possibility of buying Jewish Hospital and making it the site of their replacement hospital.
Greater Louisville Inc. president Kent Oyler issued a statement on the VA decision, saying now that the Brownsboro location has been finalized, “we encourage the Veterans Affairs department to start construction immediately. Let’s work together in delivering the quality access and facilities our Veterans deserve and need.”
Judy Williams, the spokeswoman for the 65-year-old Robley Rex VA Medical Center on Zorn Avenue, said in a statement that the VA’s final record of decision “has authorized the US Army Corps of Engineers to give Notice to Proceed to the design team for work on construction documents,” adding that throughout the construction process, “Veterans will continue to receive the quality care and services they have earned and deserve as VA works to deliver this project to the Veteran community in Louisville.”
The final design for the new VA medical center includes a 104-bed hospital, parking for 2,600 cars, underground utilities, a new central utility plant, a laundry facility, roadways, sidewalks, perimeter fencing and landscaping. In the final record of decision released Friday, Sec. Shulkin ruled that the project would no longer include a regional office building on the property, which would allow the parking garage on the site to be smaller.
The VA has previously stated that the construction of a new medical center would take roughly six to seven years to be completed. Williams told Insider Friday that the VA has authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to give notice to proceed to the design team for work on construction documents, and expects the design of the hospital to be completed in 2018. However, she added that “a construction timeline has not been finalized,” and the VA “will require additional appropriation from Congress and will be requested in a future budget submission.”
The final decision of the VA on the Brownsboro site can be read in full below:
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