FRANKFORT — Republican state senators questioned Tuesday why the state was spending $3.6 million to widen roads and build a pedestrian tunnel to help ease traffic congestion around the Kentucky Speedway for its Sprint Cup race on June 30.
Traffic woes ensnared thousands of NASCAR enthusiasts during the inaugural race at the speedway in July. Many ticket buyers were unable to attend the event because they were stuck in traffic outside the Gallatin County track. Among them was Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, who called for legislative hearings to address the traffic mess.
Mark Simendinger, the speedway's general manager, told the Senate Transportation Committee on Tuesday that the track made several mistakes.
Traffic wasn't moved quickly enough off Interstate 71 and Ky. 35, there weren't enough parking places and the parking lots weren't managed effectively. There also was a shortage of staff, he said.
"It wasn't for lack of effort," Simendinger said. "We just had a really bad plan."
Simendinger and Gov. Steve Beshear announced Aug. 30 that the track was going to spend $1.5 million to buy 143 acres across the street from the speedway for an additional 10,000 parking spaces, or a 35 percent increase in parking. The track is making additional improvements to its other parking facilities to increase traffic flow and increase the number of parking spaces, Simendinger said. In total the track is spending $7.5 million on improvements aimed at decreasing traffic problems.
Beshear said the state was going to spend $3.6 million to widen the southbound ramp off I-71 at exit 57 to allow three lanes of traffic to exit onto Ky. 35. About a mile of Ky. 35 will be widened to five lanes. There also will be $1.2 million for a pedestrian tunnel underneath Ky. 35 from the new parking lot to the speedway.
But some Republican senators questioned why the state was spending tax dollars to help a private business. Several state senators said they, too, were caught in traffic and couldn't attend the event or were able to see only the last part of the race.
Sen. Mike Wilson, R-Bowling Green, said the state was spending money to improve traffic around the speedway, yet there were many other worthy transportation projects that have not been funded. Wilson pointed to a particularly dangerous stretch of I-65 north of Bowling Green "where people are being killed."
Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelby County, said state transportation officials said after the Sprint Cup race in July that the problems at the speedway were not due to infrastructure problems. Yet two months later, the state was planning to spend money to improve roadways.
Some senators questioned why the track could not spend $1.2 million to build the pedestrian tunnel.
Transportation Secretary Mike Hancock told the committee the state decided to use $3.6 million from a contingency fund for the speedway project because of multiple public safety concerns. There also were people on I-71 who were not going to the Sprint Cup race that were stuck in traffic for hours. The state has a responsibility to keep I-71 open, he said. The state also has a responsibility to ensure that people are safe.
"Our intent is protecting I-71," Hancock said.
Sen. Tim Shaugnessy, D-Louisville, told the committee that it seemed hypocritical for state legislators to demand improvements at the track so there would be no future problems, yet balk at helping pay for some of the expense.
Simendinger said the track has not done a study of the economic impact the NASCAR event had on Kentucky, but Beshear administration officials have put the number at $150 million.