Issue June 2, 2009

Citizen Lawson

Or, why more roads equals less

When he was 18, Leonard Lawson worked on a highway project — his first of many — as an entry-level maintenance worker. It was good, honest work for a boy hailing from Beverly, Ky., a hamlet located near the commonwealth’s poverty-stricken eastern coal fields.

No doubt impressed by the burgeoning spectacle of the American Interstate Highway System, Lawson took interest in the magical, viscous substance known as asphalt. It soon blossomed into a career that would shape much of the socioeconomic fate of eastern Kentucky: By 1971 he was the owner of the R. E. Gaddie Construction Co., which became a massive road conglomerate that essentially laid every highway, byway and overpass in the region up to the present day. If there was asphalt being laid in Kentucky, Lawson was the magnate most likely responsible.

Aside from the 1,500 workers his five companies directly employ across four states, the transportation vistas ushered in by Lawson’s manifold Mountain Cos. created an untold plethora of subdivisions, low-density strip malls and other unsustainable growth in a region that badly needed one of its own to rise up, Alger-style, and become the tide that would lift all boats.

Until he was indicted last September on a half-dozen counts that include conspiracy, bribery and obstruction of justice — in what amounts to one of the Greatest Fleecings This State Has Ever Seen — the Boy from Beverly was seen as just that. In 2000, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet inducted him into its “Transportation Hall of Fame” (where much of this delightfully fluffy bio material came from) for “his passion to help eastern Kentucky improve its infrastructure and … the quality of life for its residents.” As is the usual want of wealthy people in this state, the induction meant Lawson had earned a commanding position in Kentucky’s coveted Old Boy Network, whose membership essentially guaranteed his journey down a slippery, hubris-lined slope.

Less than 10 years later, the guy is being strung up like a gutted pig awaiting the spit. His crimes? Many. His guilt? Seems probable. Yet as much as Lawson and his government-employed enabler, former Transportation Secretary Bill Nighbert (who was indicted with Lawson; their trial starts June 23), are poster children for all that is wrong, dumb and disappointing about any serious notions of progress and justice in a state hellbent on burying itself under one clichéd bout of cronyism/fraud/whathaveyou after another, their fate should also signal a death knell to the laying of asphalt as we know it in the Bluegrass State.

Consider the facts. Mountain Cos. was awarded nearly $418 million in road contracts in one year alone, far in excess of its so-called “competitors” — which now seems even more likely the result of bullying and the adept manipulation of hidden strings. And how has that, exactly, helped the denizens of eastern Kentucky, who continue to eek out a medieval existence? Or, for that matter, the left-behinds of Lawson’s Beverly, population 338? Aside from the obligatory donations to certain charitable organizations (i.e. Pikeville College; Red Bird Mission Methodist Highway, his alma mater; etc.), little of his companies’ wealth found its way back to Beverly. As well, little to none of the highway’s oft-touted economic-growth factors have managed to reach this place, where over a third of the citizens live below the poverty line (therefore unable to afford an automobile, ironically), annual household incomes average $15,000, and education levels are far below that required of the coming Green Economy.

For that matter, little of Lawson’s manifest destiny has improved the state at-large: Kentucky enjoys one of the worst carbon footprints in the nation (thanks, sprawl), an alarming share of vehicular accidents (thanks, dry counties), and some of the fattest people this side of, well … Kentucky. It’s also good to keep in mind that the Ohio River Bridges Project was heavily drafted and lobbied for by a certain unseated 3rd District Representative and a Muppet-esque Junior Senator — roughly the same time the KTC shit out a Powerpoint-drafted Hall of Fame certificate to Lawson himself.

Whether we fully understand the challenges and mindshifts required of us in order to move away from the multi-tentacled, quality-of-life constraining beast of Lawson’s Paved Paradise toward a more urban, public transit-oriented reality, the change will not go down easy — if at all. It remains to be seen whether our Governor & Co. will fight fire with fire, or if we will all run naked and fuck in the streets like animals, should light rail ever come true.