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40 road projects slated for Central Kentucky

FRANKFORT — A state road plan packed with unfunded construction projects sped through the House Friday and is expected to land on Gov. Steve Beshear's desk within a week.

The road plan — long a source of political contention and infighting — easily won approval in the House with a 94-3 vote on Friday, less than 24 hours after being made public.

Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, said Friday that he thinks the Republican-controlled Senate will pass the road plan and accompanying legislation that would stop the state's gas tax from dropping next month. The Senate is expected to vote on the proposal Tuesday or Wednesday, he said.

The plan includes $3.7 billion for roads over the next 16 months, but a companion funding bill provides between $1.2 billion and $1.4 billion in cash, depending on how much money the state borrows through bonds.

The spending measure, which prevents the state's 21.1 cent-per-gallon gas tax from dropping 4 cents on April 1, cleared the House 82-17.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said after Friday's vote that lawmakers hope to use a combination of bonds and additional federal money in the next few years to pay for some of the approved projects that don't currently have a funding source.

About $750 million in projects currently in the road plan could potentially be funded through a different federal program, the Appalachian Research Commission, Stumbo said.

However, to tap that money, the state must provide matching funds, he said. One potential solution the state is considering: using coal severance tax funds to provide the matching money, Stumbo said.

Chuck Wolfe, a spokesman for the Transportation Cabinet, said the agency's fiscal experts were still combing through the bill Friday, which the agency received late Thursday night.

"We're trying to digest what was passed by the House and now has to go to the Senate," Wolfe said. The department knows that there are more projects than money, "but we don't know by how much, and we don't know how to quantify that."

In years past, a project in the state's six-year road plan could languish for decades without funding, Stumbo said.

More projects were funded this year than in past years, thanks to more than $421 million in federal stimulus dollars, which nearly doubled the amount the state typically receives in federal funding. The state will get an additional $450 million next year in regular federal funding that could help the state pay for some of the unfunded projects, Wolfe said.

Included in the road plan is more than $125 million worth of projects in Fayette County. Major projects scheduled to begin construction before July include an $11 million extension of Newtown Pike from Main Street to Versailles Road and a $9 million widening of Leestown Road outside New Circle Road.

The debate on the House floor Friday mainly centered on stopping the gas tax from dropping 4 cents. The tax is tied to the wholesale price of gas, which has plummeted in recent months.

Rep. Stan Lee, R-Lexington, argued that the General Assembly promised consumers that the gas tax would decrease with the price of gas. "We're voting to change the promise we made to the people," Lee said. "I don't think it's fair."

Rep. Scott Brinkman, R-Louisville, said it is wrong to stop the tax decline when so many people are unemployed. Four cents might not seem like much to lawmakers, he said, but "tell that to the person who just lost their job."

Rep. Harry Moberly, D-Richmond, countered that state leaders are elected to change laws when conditions change. Moberly added that neighboring states have much higher state gas taxes than Kentucky, yet the price at the pump is the same.

Those four cents will not go back to the consumer, Moberly said. "It's going back to the oil companies," he said.

The three lawmakers who opposed House Bill 330, which contains the road plan, were Lee, Bill Farmer, R-Lexington, and Alecia Webb-Edgington, R-Fort Wright. Lee, Farmer and Webb-Edgington also voted against the tax increase, along with several others.

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