Issue December 16, 2008

Congested concept

State releases study of something like 8664, but proprietors say it’s way off

When you drop a stunning bit of information on Tyler Allen, his face falls into this weird contortion: It’s sort of a smile, with his lips bending slightly outward to reveal a straight line of teeth, and he nods emphatically in about three-word intervals, although the overall expression remains measured, restrained, like he’s alternately about to hug you and spontaneously combust.

Allen, J.C. Stites and Joe Burgan — collectively, the trio behind 8664, the conceptual alternative to the Ohio River Bridges Project that would replace a waterfront portion of I-64 with a four-lane boulevard and build only the East End bridge — dropped by our office Tuesday morning to discuss what can only be considered, at this point in the bridges project narrative, a stunning bit of information: a 14-page study just released by the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet purporting to disprove their concept, saying it would increase traffic congestion and air pollution.

They were not consulted for this study (nor was Walter Kulash, the retired engineer who conducted a feasibility study — at the request of 8664 — that found the concept was feasible, less costly than the bridges project, and more likely to reduce traffic downtown).

Certainly they were aware of it: In August, 8664 released to reporters the results of a request made under the Kentucky Open Records Act that netted a series of e-mails proving that a study of a concept akin to 8664 — purposefully not referred to by name in state government e-mails and documents, likely because of the explosive political movement associated with it — had been undertaken and abruptly cancelled, about a week from completion.

Deep breath.

More than three months after the state agreed to finish the study amid ample criticism, it quietly made its way to the cabinet and, if not for my call and request last Thursday for an update, may have remained off-radar.

According to the proprietors of 8664, there are several major problems with the study, which was conducted by Lexington-based Wilbur Smith Associates, who has a standing contract with the cabinet.

1. The study compares 8664 with the bridges project, despite their stated goals being philosophically different and the traffic modeling essentially an apples to oranges comparison;

2. It includes the proposed widening of I-64 between downtown and I-265 (this is neither in the bridges project plans nor 8664’s), requiring the widening of Cochran Tunnel, which could add time and cost;

3. It asserts that a key interchange of 8664 would terminate at the wrong place, thus suggesting traffic congestion where there would actually be no exit ramp;

4. It claims 8664’s four-lane waterfront boulevard (replacing the removed stretch of I-64) would cut through Waterfront Park, although 8664 diagrams and proposals show it further south, leaving the park untouched;

5. It says the waterfront boulevard is three miles long, when it has actually been proposed at less than two.

And so on.

I submitted these points in question form to Chuck Wolfe, spokesman for the Transportation Cabinet, via e-mail. Wolfe called a few hours later to explain that it was the cabinet’s position to not comment on any aspect of this study.

“I’m not going to try and go through and answer every technical question about it,” Wolfe said. “Our energies right now are kind of focused on overcoming a $105 million shortfall in the road fund.”

He said no one in the cabinet would talk about the study in detail, calling it an “internal” document intended to bring the new administration — which took office last year — up to speed on 8664. He added that anyone thinking they’ve found inaccuracies in the study should contact the transportation cabinet; when I reminded that’s what I was doing, he again said the cabinet would not comment on the study.

Wolfe also refused to speculate, when prodded, whether the study would be used when the cabinet testifies next year about pre-filed legislation that would create a state tolling authority to help pay for the estimated $4.1 billion cost of the bridges project.

A call to Wilbur Smith Associates was not returned by the time this issue went to press.

Wolfe said the study cost the state about $60,000. That’s some $10,000 more than what was estimated in August; Wolfe said the study cost more because the state asked the firm to produce a less technical report, after public controversy erupted over the initial cancellation of the study.

8664’s principals say they plan to lobby in Frankfort this session, but they’ll likely be up against stiff political opposition: The Beshear administration has shown no signs of flagging support for the bridges project. Regardless, they’re optimistic.

“If you make downtown accommodate huge amounts of interstate traffic, you will invite it,” Allen said. 

A note on the attached study: To make it a quicker download, we removed several high quality images from the KYTC study. That is why the page numbers do not line up.