FRANKFORT — Despite pledges of frugality by Gov. Steve Beshear and state lawmakers, the General Assembly included in the state's new $3.7 billion road plan a $15.8 million Hardin County project that a judge recently called "patently unnecessary."
The two-mile extension of Ring Road, which circles around much of Elizabethtown, to the Western Kentucky Parkway is "ill-conceived" and a "political 'add-on,'" Franklin Circuit Court Judge Phillip Shepherd said in a Feb. 13 ruling.
Despite his opinion, Shepherd denied a motion to have the project stopped by Richard and Patricia McGehee, who are fighting the state's condemnation of their farm to build the extension. Shepherd said his court was not the appropriate arena to decide their dispute with the state Transportation Cabinet.
Meanwhile, Hardin County officials say the extension of Ring Road is vital to Elizabethtown's growth. Moreover, another judge has ruled that the state has the right to build the road and take the McGehees' land.
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Shepherd's comments came less than a year after Transportation Cabinet Secretary Joe Prather — a native of Elizabethtown — announced in August 2008 that the agency was no longer going to build unneeded roads and vowed to be more judicious with its money.
But Shepherd, in the Feb. 13 opinion, said the project appeared to be frivolous.
"The testimony and legislative history of the six-year road plan established that this project has never been supported by any traffic or engineering study done by the Department of Highways. Rather, it was a political 'add-on,'" Shepherd wrote.
The fact that more than $20 million — part of the road is already under construction or completed — has been spent on the project "is a matter of great concern, as there are vast numbers of other greatly needed highway projects in the Commonwealth that are not receiving sufficient attention or funding," Shepherd said.
Chuck Wolfe, a spokesman for the Transportation Cabinet, said the cabinet disagrees with Shepherd's assessment.
"The cabinet does not question the need or doubt the justification for this current project," Wolfe said. "The last segment of this roadway has been in the works for many years."
Shepherd obviously has never been to the south side of Elizabethtown, Hardin County officials said.
"Anybody who has looked into this and has been there on the ground would understand the need for this road," said Harry Berry, Hardin County judge executive.
Rep. Jimmie Lee, D-Elizabethtown, also strongly supports the project, saying it is the city's No. 1 priority.
"Every city father and county official wants that road," Lee said. "The good of many should not be held up for one or two people. If that happened, then we would never get any roads built."
Without the extension of Ring Road to the Western Kentucky Parkway, semis must go through town to get to the city's industrial parks, which creates traffic problems and backups downtown, Berry said.
Elizabethtown has a difficult time luring new businesses to its industrial parks because there is no convenient access to the parkway, Lee said.
"We hear that all the time from our prospects, 'When are you going to finish that road?" Lee said.
Hardin County Circuit Court Senior Judge Janet Coleman said the state could condemn the McGehees' land in a June 2008 opinion. Coleman's decision came after hearing four days of testimony in December 2007.
But Hank Graddy, a lawyer who represents the McGehees, says the reason state and local leaders give for needing the extension has changed repeatedly over the past six years.
Testimony in the December 2007 Hardin Circuit Court case showed that a transportation study was conducted in 1987, but no other in-depth study was done after that to show that the extension is needed, Graddy said.
Wolfe said the Transportation Cabinet did not want to waste money on further studies because the General Assembly had already put the project in its road plan.
Shepherd, in his decision, notes that testimony by a civil engineer hired by the McGehees indicates that the road will go through a mostly rural area already served by other four-lane roads.
"The belief that if you build more roads, that industry will come, I don't see the basis for it," Graddy said. The city's industrial parks are struggling because business is struggling, not because of poor roads, Graddy said.
The Ring Road extension project was included in Gov. Steve Beshear's proposed road plan last year, but ultimately got left out of the final plan by the General Assembly. However, Shepherd later invalidated the legislature's road plan in an unrelated case, leaving the Beshear administration to implement its original proposal containing the Ring Road extension.
Graddy and the McGehees asked the General Assembly to delete the road in this year's road plan, but that request was not granted. Both chambers have approved the plan and Beshear has pledged to sign most of it into law.
Still, the final segment of the Ring Road extension probably won't be built any time soon.
The project remains on hold as the McGehees appeal the 2008 Hardin County Circuit Court decision to the state Court of Appeals. No construction can be done until the dispute is settled.