Tom Eblen

Bigger roads aren't always better

Kentuckians like to say they bleed blue, especially during basketball and football seasons.

We also bleed black. Some say it's because of coal, but I have a different theory: blacktop.

Kentuckians love asphalt, and we have spent nearly a century putting down as much of it as possible.

Like everyone else, I want to get where I'm going fast. I hate to sit in traffic. And, as a cyclist, I admit to being a pavement connoisseur. There is nothing like gliding down a lightly traveled country road on fresh, smooth asphalt.

I've recently reveled in biking on resurfaced roads such as Ky. 57 west of North Middletown and Hughes Lane west of Paris Pike. And I couldn't be happier that the paving crews finally found that last, long-crumbling mile of Armstrong Mill Road.

At the same time, though, I've always wondered about Kentucky's obsession with turning two-lane roads into massive four-lane highways when wider shoulders and a turn lane would do just fine.

I remember driving 1,200 miles around Ireland a few years ago on a vacation. Only twice — south of Dublin and around Shannon Airport — did I see a highway as big as the mostly empty five-lane stretch of Tates Creek Road near my house.

In one of the more sensible things I've ever seen a governor do, Gov. Steve Beshear recently announced a program in the Transportation Cabinet called "Practical Solutions." It calls for a review of the state's 600 pending road projects, and all future ones, to cut waste without compromising safety. A major focus will be identifying unnecessary four-lane highway projects.

"It's an initiative that makes sense," Transportation Cabinet Secretary Joe Prather told Herald-Leader reporter Beth Musgrave when the program was announced Aug. 4. "People who like to design roads like to design a showplace, but it doesn't necessarily make traffic move better or make a road safer."

After two months, those reviews are still under way, and no projects have been scaled back yet, Transportation Cabinet spokesman Mark Brown said Friday.

A lot of people are watching to see what happens. Some are skeptical. After all, no part of state government has a richer history of power politics, patronage and corruption than highway-building. Blacktop has long been Kentucky's political currency, and calls for reform are nothing new.

Even in the 1920s, politicians such as "Boss" Ben Johnson used highway projects to reward friends and punish enemies, according to state historian James Klotter of Georgetown College. There has always been so much money at stake. In 1930, half of all state expenditures went to road construction.

Prather's predecessor, Bill Nighbert, and Leonard Lawson, one of the state's biggest road contractors, are now under indictment for allegedly tampering with the bidding process for $130 million in state road contracts.

Aside from politics and corruption, though, highway-building has always symbolized "progress" in Kentucky. The bigger the highway, the more "progress."

Some of that has been true. Adequate roads are vital to the economy, especially in remote, rural areas.

But some of it has been the sort of "build it and they will come" economic development nostrum that has left Kentucky with a lot of big, empty highways and big, empty industrial parks.

The Transportation Cabinet's budget this fiscal year is $2.16 billion, although high gasoline prices and the sagging economy are sure to take a chunk out of it. Last week, Beshear announced that gas-tax revenues used for road-building last month were 11.4 percent below September 2007 and are down 4.5 percent through the first three months of the fiscal year that began July 1. So some big "Practical Solutions" savings will be needed.

But beyond balancing budgets, Kentuckians should use Beshear's program as an opportunity to rethink priorities. This is a poor state with a lot of needs, and it can no longer afford to build lavish highways rather than invest in education and maintain the social safety net.

I wish Beshear's initiative could have come sooner. I would have liked someone to take a close look at the $29.7 million project that is turning six miles of U.S. 68 in Jessamine County from one of the Bluegrass' most scenic roads into a superhighway sure to bring unbridled suburban sprawl from Lexington all the way to Wilmore.

Sure, U.S. 68 is too narrow. It needs some straightening, some widening, some shoulders and a few turn lanes. But this project, which is 28 percent done and scheduled for completion in November 2009, has always struck me as a $5 solution to a 25-cent problem.

It's the kind of extravagance Kentucky can't afford and would be better off without. Just think what a big chunk of that $29.7 million could do to improve schools, make college educations more affordable or lower taxes.

Just as Kentucky will never pave its way to prosperity, it will never solve all of its highway safety and transportation problems by building bigger, wider, straighter roads that just encourage people to drive more and drive faster.

In addition to good, sensibly scaled roads, Kentucky must invest more in buses, streetcars, light rail, sidewalks and bike paths. Otherwise, we will continue spending too much of our limited resources to create an environment for cars instead of people.

If there's one thing I learned from living in Atlanta for a decade, it's this: Highways are like closets. If you have one, you'll fill it up.