Politics & Government

House road-funding plan would delay Mountain Parkway project, but take tolls off the table

The Mountain Parkway is a four-lane road for 46 miles, from I-64 at Winchester to Campton, then reduces to two lanes for 30 miles until ending in Salyersville.
The Mountain Parkway is a four-lane road for 46 miles, from I-64 at Winchester to Campton, then reduces to two lanes for 30 miles until ending in Salyersville. Herald-Leader

FRANKFORT — The Kentucky House on Tuesday approved a $4.51 billion, two-year road plan that relies on a gas tax increase and postpones completion of Gov. Steve Beshear's proposal to widen and extend Eastern Kentucky's Mountain Parkway.

By delaying completion of the parkway project until 2024, lawmakers would eliminate the need for tolls to help pay for the work, said Rep. Leslie Combs, D-Pikeville, who helped write the plan.

"The whole point of the Mountain Parkway is to open up the region and make it more accessible," Combs said. "Tolls were not going to help. We're having this big debate about whether the Louisville bridges should have tolls, and everyone has jobs in Louisville."

The Democratic-led House voted 51-43 to send its version of the road plan to the Republican-led Senate, which is expected to make changes that require negotiations between the two chambers.

House Democrats narrowly turned back a Republican effort to delay voting on the plan by one day so House members would have time to read the bill. Most lawmakers got a copy of the 348-page project list just a few hours before the floor vote. House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, said it wasn't necessary for everyone to read the bill because talks with the Senate soon will change it anyway, but Republicans disagreed.

"I'm voting 'No' for my constituents who expect me, I believe, to know and understand what I'm voting on," House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, said in a floor speech. "We haven't had that opportunity with this bill."

The House faced "quite an undertaking" because House Bill 237 originally held $1 billion more in road, bridge and other transportation projects than it did in funds, requiring the state's wish list to be culled, Combs said.

Several House Republicans protested an accompanying revenue measure that would raise Kentucky's current gas tax by 1.5 cents per gallon and prevent it from dropping below that level. They also said GOP lawmakers who refused to support the gas tax hike had millions of dollars in road projects stripped from their districts.

"It's a disgrace to be a member of this body today," Rep. John "Bam" Carney, R-Campbellsville, said at a House budget committee hearing before the House vote.

But Combs said the plan fairly represents the state's transportation needs in Democratic and Republican House districts. She listed several major road projects in GOP House districts, including $35 million to build a new Interstate 75 interchange near the Toyota plant in Georgetown, which is represented by Republican Ryan Quarles.

"I think they've been well-represented in the projects they got," Combs told reporters.

One person who didn't get quite what he asked for is Beshear, the Democratic governor.

In January, Beshear proposed boosting Eastern Kentucky's economy by spending $753 million over six years to widen the full length of the Mountain Parkway and extend it at its eastern end, creating a four-lane route from Interstate 64 near Winchester to U.S. 23 near Prestonsburg, which links to Pikeville. Under Beshear's plan, the state would have spent $252 million over the next two years to begin work on the project.

Instead, the House halved the initial two-year parkway investment to $123 million, focusing on the route's western end around Campton, and it stretched the construction time for the overall project from six to 10 years.

Combs said she doesn't expect the final cost to change much from $753 million. If the Transportation Cabinet had raced to complete the parkway improvements by 2020, it would have consumed much of the agency's budget and made it impossible to pay for other necessary projects, she said.

"To the governor's credit, he was trying to get it done in six years. But we've waited 50 years to finish the Mountain Parkway, and we can wait a little longer," Combs said. "This just seemed the more responsible way to go."

In a prepared statement, Beshear said he's monitoring the changes.

"At this point the road plan is a work in progress, and we will continue to work with the House and Senate on it as it moves through the legislative process," the governor said.

Another entity affected in the House road plan is the proposed Ark Encounter religious theme park in Grant County.

Beshear's road plan in January specified $21.2 million for Grant County over the next two years to build a new I-75 interchange and improve nearby Ky. 36 to accommodate heavier local traffic. But the House would postpone those projects until the 2017, 2018 and 2019 fiscal years. In both the governor's and the House plan, some of the Grant County projects' assigned funding relied on non-existent sources.

Ark Encounter organizers say they expect to break ground this year and open the first phase of the park in 2016.

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