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Engineers reviewing road projects for ways to save

FRANKFORT — Facing rising costs and dwindling finances, Kentucky officials think they could save hundreds of millions of dollars in road construction with a little frugality.

The plan is simple. Sort of.

Instead of building extra turning lanes and expansive shoulders, transportation officials are scaling back where possible. Think fewer lanes on some less-traveled roads, or rumble strips or narrower medians to separate lanes.

"It's building a Chevy that's very serviceable instead of building a Cadillac with all the frills," Transportation Secretary Joe Prather said.

State officials are still working to identify which projects will be scaled down. But a decision is expected before the end of the year, Prather said. Maintaining safety and traffic flow is key, he said.

Every project in the pipeline is up for review. The plan, which was announced in early August, has the potential to save Kentucky millions that could be used for other construction projects throughout the state.

A souring economy has Kentucky state government facing a $900 million revenue drop during the two fiscal years that started in July. Lawmakers earlier this year approved a two-year, $19 billion budget that included significant cuts to health services and education spending.

Engineers in district offices across the state have been reviewing each project, but no final decisions have been made, Prather said. However, changes under consideration on a single project could save the state $17 million to $18 million by shrinking the median, narrowing the shoulders and reducing the amount of necessary land, Prather said.

Prather wouldn't be specific, and he said there's no firm dollar amount of projected savings for the overall plan they're calling "Practical Solutions." Nevertheless, he said he expects it to be "several hundred million."

"The goal is to build the roads that we need and not what we might like to have," he said, "which means that safety wouldn't be compromised and driveability wouldn't be compromised. But we would be looking to eliminate any frills so that we could contain cost."

Kentucky lawmakers, Prather said, should like the plan because it offers them a way to get more road projects done sooner.

"The indications are that the General Assembly will look very favorably on this," Prather said. "It means that more legislators are going to have more projects done than they would have otherwise."

Transportation officials have planned to pare down some proposed bridges over Kentucky Lake and Lake Bark ley, Calloway County Judge-Executive Larry Elkins said.

"What they've decided to do is instead of having a fancy bridge, they're going to have a four-lane serviceable bridge that will serve the purpose," Elkins said. "And my personal opinion is that during these difficult times, that was the best decision that they could come up with."

State Rep. Hubert Collins, D-Wittensville, said lawmakers need to take a "very close look" at the proposal and consider safety. Also, building some two-lane roads now — rather than four lanes — could eventually cost more, Collins said.