Making law, sausage and the road plan

Laws and sausages, the saying goes, are two things you never want to see being made.

State highway projects could be added to that list. And, like laws and sausages, it can be very costly when their origins are too murky.

The latest demonstration of these hazards is the proposed northwest bypass in Versailles. Essentially the proposal, placed in the state road plan through the opaque legislative budgeting process, is to build a bypass, at a total cost of about $39 million, from the Midway Road east of Versailles, through farmland north of the city to meet Falling Springs Boulevard and Ky. 62 on the west.

The project has drawn support, mostly in Versailles, from people who say it will relieve traffic in the small, historic downtown, take large trucks off smaller roads and improve the economy.

The opposition, from Versailles and throughout Woodford County, questions the need for the road, believes it will blemish the landscape, funnel more heavy truck traffic onto the narrow, rural Midway Road and hurt business in downtown Versailles by diverting traffic.

Any traffic problems, they say, should first be addressed with less expensive and intrusive approaches proposed in a 2010 traffic study commissioned by the city of Versailles.

But, here are the problems that became clear as the two worlds collided at a meeting Nov. 19 of the Citizens Advisory Committee: projects often make it into the state road plan because political forces put them there, and once in that plan, the job of the engineers is to design and build a road, not find the best way to handle traffic.

When advisory committee member Libby Jones questioned why Woodford County’s “excellent comprehensive plan” wasn’t considered as a starting point for considering transportation options, there was no good answer.

Comprehensive plans and the road plan are just “not connected,” said Arrell Thompson, a consulting engineer on the project. The legislature appropriated money to study the best route from one point to another, not to look at broader concerns or alternatives, state engineer Rob Sprague explained.

“It is not based on any study saying it’s needed,” the Woodford Sun quoted Sprague in an earlier meeting. “It’s based on a (state) highway plan that said, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’”

Another puzzler is that citizens and the advisory committee are presented with four options: three alternative routes and no-build, but the last is underweighted. Sprague said no-build will only be considered when there is “a fatal flaw” in a project. He’s never been involved in a project where that was the recommendation.

When the community was polled on the options, 381, or 75 percent of those responding, chose “no-build.” That will not affect the recommendation, though. Sprague said the results are “not representative of the community,” while former state Rep. Joe Barrows, whose family owns property along the route, said it could be interpreted as “only 300” people oppose the road.

So we have a system -- or non-system -- sure to create frustration among engineers told to design roads and local people who think their input and plans matter. As the state pours money into planning a project, the likelihood it will be built inevitably grows. The $2 million spent on this planning and design process will be regarded as an investment justifying moving forward.

To recap: There’s no study saying this road is needed, citizens who have commented overwhelmingly oppose it, and the comprehensive plan for the county doesn’t include it. Still, through some undefined political influence, it wound up in the road plan with $2 million allocated for this phase, and a route sure to be recommended.

While this project is worrisome, there’s no reason to believe the process that created and is nurturing it is unique. Who knows how many millions have been spent on roads around Kentucky that came into being through political alchemy rather than sound planning.