It’s no secret Kentucky is in an economic pickle. The Governor hopes to save some money now – and in the future – by changing the way Kentucky designs roads.
And although transportation officials don’t know how much money could be saved, they’re moving forward with cost-cutting measures on projects that are already underway. WFPL’s Stephanie Sanders reports.
Dump trucks are unloading road materials next to KY-393 in Oldham County. We’re two years into the state’s Six-Year Highway Plan, and this project calls for a widening and relocation of the current two-lane road just off I-71. Over the last two years, the state has allocated 17-point-five million dollars to the project.
But in the last few weeks, highway engineers at the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet have been reviewing the six-hundred existing road projects in the state, including this one. They’re looking for ways to cut costs, and KY-393 is a perfect example of the types of changes they hope to make.
Governor Steve Beshear has been touting the overhaul of the way road projects are approached in the state since he announced the plan – called “Practical Solutions”. He spoke earlier this month at a forum in Louisville.
“If we’re successful in doing this, this will be the biggest change in the way we do business in probably the history of the Commonwealth,” says Beshear.
Part of the initiative is to reduce extravagant road projects lawmakers have inserted into the Highway Plan to win brownie points in their home districts. But the biggest chunk of savings, according to Transportation Secretary Joe Prather, will come in reevaluating each project’s size and materials.
“We’re looking to build more Chevrolets and fewer Cadillacs where appropriate and in the process save significant dollars,” says Prather.
The Cadillacs he refers to might be a four-lane highway with wide medians and shoulders. The Chevrolets would result from downsizing that project to include smaller medians and shoulders, and only two lanes with a passing lane. Or – in the case of KY-393 – simply repaving an existing road and adding shoulders as opposed to relocating the road forty yards away from the original.
The governor’s plan is modeled after a similar initiative in Missouri called Practical Design. Instituted in 2006, transportation officials there project it will save the state 400-million dollars over five years.
“I was real concerned at the start that we would have safety problems,” says Charlie Nemmers, the Director of the Transportation Infrastructure Center at the University of Missouri. The idea of skimping on road projects turned his civil engineer stomach, but two years into Practical Design, he admits he was wrong.
“What ended up happening is in the last two years, they’ve had fewer fatalities on their highway systems by the order of magnitude of a hundred or so,” Nemmers says.
Highway engineers in Missouri and Kentucky say that’s happening because the new approach allows them to improve more miles of roadway than they previously could.
But are these so-called Chevrolet roadways still good enough to attract economic investment to rural areas of the state? Nemmers says in Missouri their recent studies show a well-maintained two-lane highway adequately handles traffic in these rural areas, whereas a four-lane would be a luxury.
“Occasionally, you’re going to find that economic development would be of sufficient size and would cause a ripple effect as far as growth where you would need to continue to have four-lane roads, but we think there are going to be many instances where that is not the case at all,” says Kentucky Tranportation Secretary Joe Prather.
“There’s no sense adding capacity on road systems where there’s already excess capacity, so… sounds like a very rational approach to me,” says University of Louisville economics professor Dr. Paul Coomes – he says the top priority should be identifying bottlenecks and fixing them in urban areas… but in rural areas the old ‘build it and they will come’ adage doesn’t always work. And in tight budget times, the cost may not be worth any unknown economic investments, even five or ten years from now.
And it will likely take that long to know the economic effect of the plan. The Transportation Cabinet isn’t planning to study if the changes will effect economic investments in the state. They’re hoping businesses that may be looking for a Cadillac will settle for a Chevy.