Kentucky is Driving Home the Message that Failing Infrastructure Cannot Be America’s Legacy

Part Two of a Two-Part Series

The Washington, D.C., metropolitan area is a world unto itself. Massive efforts toward successful federal legislation have flowed through this part of the nation since Congress formed 230 years ago. Now America’s leaders face one of the country’s most pressing matters: how to modernize lagging infrastructure and revitalize predictable investment in its multimodal transportation system.

But communities throughout the United States are the ones that have to deal with the consequences of unmet and rising demands for infrastructure investment, replacements and repairs as well as funding for safety-focused projects. Last week, rock fragments fell from a tower of the 152-year-old John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge in Kentucky and the bridge was closed to Covington motorists as a plan for fixes progresses.

In Kentucky, Republican Gov. Matt Bevin has been focused on shoring up infrastructure investment but regional change-agents take nothing for granted. They draft op-eds, move through the State Capitol in Frankfort where 138 legislators help determine long-term policies, meet with policymakers, build public awareness, foster media engagement, and crunch numbers to help tell their state’s transportation story.

Groups such as the Kentucky Association of Highway Contractors, Inc. (KAHC), area chambers of commerce, the broad-based Kentucky Infrastructure Coalition (KIC), and the Kentuckians for Better Transportation (KBT) have been vocal proponents for increasing transportation investment by raising the gas tax as well increasing numerous fees for permitting, licenses and registration — a few of which haven’t been increased since the late 1960s.

M. Chad LaRue, a licensed professional engineer and KAHC Executive Director, and Kate Shanks, Vice President of Policy Development at the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, both point out that working through coalitions has been beneficial in Kentucky. Vetting issues, getting buy-in from members, and keeping various constituencies informed and engaged are paramount.

“People look at this and say you’re talking about the gas tax or you’re talking about raising registration fees to raise revenue, but I think that what’s important is that while people use these different terms, we see investment and when it comes to infrastructure, it’s obvious we need to be investing in it,” says Shanks. “If we become known as a state with crumbling infrastructure — and there are businesses looking to locate here who consider things such as do we have the workforce, do we have a low cost of doing business, and low energy costs — getting that new exit onto the interstate or getting that new bypass or widening that road are critical because we don’t want to be known as a state that’s not going to make those investments.”

So the Kentucky Chamber is fighting hard for change. Shanks says it successfully advocated for a gas-tax floor and has published a citizens’ guide to Kentucky infrastructure with policy insight and resources. It has interacted with the public through social media, advocated for a robust bill regarding infrastructure public-private partnerships (P3s) and held a conference on the topic, and published a strategic plan for the state, Four Pillars for (Economic) Prosperity. A key pillar is ensuring 21st-century modern infrastructure.

LaRue headed membership services at the KAHC for a decade before transitioning to the ED spot in 2016. The association formed in 1921 and represents 145 contractors and 135 associate members and its educational and awareness outreach are primarily honed for the legislators whose votes will have a rippling effect on Kentucky’s infrastructure and future.

LaRue previously worked for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet as a civil engineer. He recalls helping oversee, in 2000, a bridge maintenance contract on Interstate 64 that provided some lessons. It was in the urban area of downtown Louisville and involved an interstate closure over two weekends, incentive payments if deliverables were met early, and a first-time outlay of public-relations funds to have a media presence and educate the community about the need for a project.

“It’s no different than a house. You build a new house and for the first five or 10 years if you really wanted to, you could put zero dollars back into maintaining it and keeping it modern and in top shape,” explains LaRue. “And the reality is, you’re probably going to have very little suffering from those decisions. But starting at about year 15 or year 20, then you are going to have real issues. Maybe it is problems with the roof that keeps the structure sound, with the heating and cooling to keep them operating and functioning properly, or with the internal workings such as your water heater, your furnace, your washer and dryer, your dishwasher … all those things that are consumables. So, it’s not any different with a road or a bridge. There is a life cycle and certainly on the front end of those life cycles, the deterioration curve is pretty flat and you don’t lose a lot of value in those first years but as it starts to deteriorate, it deteriorates at an exponential rate.”

He adds, “With a bridge, I can spend $1 million to put a new surface on this bridge to keep it watertight and replace the joints or I can go another 10 or 15 years and keep that money and use it for some other priorities. Well, then you fast forward 10 years and your deck has fallen apart, the supports underneath the bridge, if they’re steel rockers, they’ve now rusted and seized up and now you have concrete damage because the water has infiltrated cracks so you’ve lost some of your concrete, the rebar has gotten exposed and has rust on it, and so all those things then become bigger costs.”

This becomes especially evident if Americans consider that key facets of regional transportation systems — which comprise the nation’s expanding transportation grid — operate every second of 31,536,000 seconds a year with revenue streams based on decades-old policies.

Still, regional stakeholders in Kentucky remain hopeful that new revenue can be raised, and they are not distracted by transportation bills that have not moved forward. LaRue points to successful measures to augment transportation investment through increasing the gas tax in neighboring or nearby states, such as Indiana, Tennessee, West Virginia, Arkansas, Alabama and Ohio.

Both he and Shanks also note that federal funding will always be a high priority because interstate improvements, costly mega projects, and targeted transportation needs in rural and urban communities persist.

“I think the federal piece is very critical. We certainly work at the state level on these issues but we also support and need increased funding at the federal level,” adds Shanks. “I know when the President came in there was talk about an infrastructure plan, and a transportation plan, and we were all very eager to find out what that plan might be and we continue to be eager to learn more about what the federal government may do. We are hopeful this is something the new Congress will take up, and we have some big-ticket projects in Kentucky that are going to take some combination of federal funds and state funds … but with our allocation of our federal funds now, there is only so much we can do.”

Read part one of this story.

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