Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Versailles bypass plan continues to stir controversy; manager says he expects route choice in next 2 months

By Kelly Brightmore
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications

With the time for a decision drawing nearer, Woodford County residents are raising much debate over a proposed bypass around the west side of Versailles. A majority of resident feedback has been negative, calling the bypass a waste of money and a threat to the peace and safety of Midway and even to the county's agricultural economy.

The proposed road, officially named the Northwest Versailles Mobility Corridor, would extend Falling Springs Boulevard around the west side of Versailles to U.S. 60 northwest of town. The current state road plan says the project would cost $39 million, including $2 million for design, $5 million for buying rights of way, $2 million for utilities relocation, and $30 million for actual construction.

Many county residents fear the project will cost them more than just their share of the dollar amount.  In a letter to the Lexington Herald-Leader, Woodford County resident Dan Rosenburg called the bypass a “waste” and said it would “destroy valuable agricultural land that is the basis of Woodford County’s economy.” Versailles resident James Nicholson likened the pricey attempt to alleviate traffic to killing “a fly with a sledge hammer” in his letter to The Woodford Sun.

Midway residents have an added worry. Because the bypass would lead directly or indirectly to US 62, Midway Road, their concern is about added traffic to the downtown area. Drivers using the bypass for quick access to Interstate 64 could clog up traffic on the narrow road with poor shoulders.

Until recently, Midway residents were under the belief that the weight limit for Midway Road would be lowered from 80,000 to 62,000 pounds under a new order of the state Transportation Cabinet. A lower weight limit means fewer trucks and less danger.  It turns out, according to the Sun, that the order does not in fact lower the weight limit due to it being a federal highway within 15 miles of an interstate. Midway residents were convinced the order was a done deal and many, including Mayor Grayson Vandegrift, saw it as an act to appease those fighting the bypass.

At the project’s citizens advisory committee Nov. 19, Arrell Thompson, consultant for the Burgess & Niple engineering firm, announced that 75 percent of public comments received about the bypass said the road shouldn’t be built.

The public comments were on an online survey and a paper submitted at a meeting in Versailles in October. The numbers were almost the reverse from a similar survey taken in 2010 by the county Planning Commission and Economic Development Authority. In that survey, nearly 73 percent of respondents wanted the bypass completed and 60 percent believed downtown Versailles traffic was a problem.

The three alternate routes chosen by the project managers would all go west of the Osram Sylvania plant then tie into U.S. 60. The most supported alternative route, Alternative B, would connect to U.S. 60 near its current intersection with U.S. 62. The others would end at Midway Road and farther up U.S. 60.

Rob Sprague, project engineer for the state Department of Highways, said at the citizen advisory committee meeting that he believes there is a silent majority in favor of the project.

Sprague told the Messenger recently, “We should be able to recommend an alignment within the next couple of months and we should know the funding schedule in April,” after the legislature revises the state road plan.

Versailles Mayor Brian Traugott is another leading proponent of the new road. In a letter to the Sun, he said the bypass would relieve a large amount of traffic from downtown Versailles and “would make downtown a more attractive area to visit.” He also addressed the concern over Midway Road, suggesting a lower speed limit, wider shoulders or reconstructing the road would address safety concerns.

Some opponents have said no study has supported construction of the road, but one letter writer cited the results of study issued in May 1999 by the Wilbur Smith Associates Consulting Engineers and Planners, which recommend the construction of a four-lane connector highway between U.S. 60 and U.S. 62 in order to relieve traffic in Versailles.

Woodford County residents and officials are not the only ones who have spoken out about the controversial project. The controversy has even spread as far as Lexington. There have been multiple letters about the bypass in the Herald-Leader and even an editorial. Herald-Leader cartoonist Joel Pett addressed the controversy in his Nov. 28 cartoon, which depicted the road as a connector between money and politics. The family of former state Rep. Joe Barrows owns property on the alternate route closest to Versailles.

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