Environment

State officials are studying plans to build a highway around Metro Louisville connecting Interstate 65 and 71, but the proposal will not include public comment or an in-depth environmental review.

The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet received $2 million from the legislature last year to plan a highway connecting the highways going through Bullitt and either Henry or Oldham counties. The cabinet expects to complete the report by the end of the year. 

The highway connector would be designed to improve regional mobility, reduce traffic and encourage economic development, according to the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet.

The cabinet cites growth in communities outside Louisville including Bullitt County where economic development officials say they are seeing 1,200 people move in each year.

“It’s a high-level study to determine a project need, goals, feasibility of a corridor in this area, potential for a new route and cost as well,” said Andrea Clifford, Kentucky Transportation Cabinet spokeswoman.

Several of the proposed routes would cut through Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest endangering habitat for federally threatened and endangered species. The proposed routes could also force people out of their homes through eminent domain, increase air pollution and isolate vulnerable communities.

But the transportation cabinet has no plans for an in-depth environmental review or public comment for now. That will come once officials narrow the options down, and once the Kentucky General Assembly selects and funds a route.

Low-income housing advocate Cathy Hinko said that’s too late.

“What it means is the community isn’t involved in the value system. And it’s not involved in saying ‘When you design this, think about me, think about my children, think about my community,’” said Hinko, the executive director of the Metropolitan Housing Coalition.

And this isn’t a new rule; it’s just the way it’s done.

“If a project is developed that comes out of the planning study, that’s when those impacts will be studied in great detail,” Clifford said.  

Highway Plans

The Transportation Department is looking at 15 possible alignments for the proposed highway. Of those, three are along existing transportation corridors while the remaining 12 would be new routes, Clifford said.

Eventually, the cabinet will likely pare that down to four or five routes that warrant further consideration.  To come up with the proposed routes, the transportation cabinet met with five regional focus groups beginning in January.

These groups largely consisted of local and state officials, including political appointees, government employees and economic development groups, according to records obtained by WDRB.

Top elected officials included Senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, Reps. Brett Guthrie and John Yarmuth, and the mayors of several cities including Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, according to focus group records.

Representatives from the Parklands of Floyds Fork were the only environmentally-related stakeholders outside of state and federal groups like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the federal and state Departments of Fish and Wildlife.

The focus groups ranked their priorities and transportation cabinet engineers came with the list of proposed routes.

“We have developed a list of performance measures that we will use to screen these alternatives. That includes mobility, land use and development, safety, environmental concerns and cost,” Clifford said.

Environmental And Social Considerations

At least four of the proposed routes would cut through Bernheim’s Cedar Grove Wildlife Corridor, said Andrew Berry, Bernheim’s Director of Conservation.

During a recent visit out to the corridor, Berry pointed across a meadow to a forested knob brimming with natural resources including natural springs, creeks, and habitat for federally threatened Kentucky Glade Cress, federally endangered Indiana and northern long-eared bats, and at least two species of rare snails. 

“Imagine that knob not existing, and imagine instead of that you see a giant road cut and you’ve got about 35,000 vehicles a day moving through this valley,” Berry said.

If the legislature were to approve a plan with a highway cutting through Bernheim, Berry said the nonprofit could not legally grant an easement because of conservation restrictions in place on the property.

If the cabinet and Bernheim can’t find a resolution, the state could still try to acquire that and other properties through eminent domain.

Ryan Van Velzer | wfpl.org

Hinko with the Metropolitan Housing Coalition said the cabinet’s study for a future highway is rooted in 20th century priorities that don’t take modern challenges into account.

Considerations of modern transportation needs, climate change and justice for vulnerable communities are among the priorities she believes should be included in the study.

“This is all about development, so where in here is about how you get people to jobs unless you’re using single-occupancy vehicles?” Hinko said.

The cabinet says an environmental overview guides the process. That includes looking at computer models of land resources, endangered species, archaeological sites and cemeteries.

But the overview is separate from the in-depth federal environmental review that would come after the study is funded. Once the project is funded, the in-depth review is mostly about limiting impacts rather than stopping the project altogether. 

“Certainly the environmental footprint is being considered even now and will continue to be considered,” said Jonathan West, transportation cabinet project manager.

It’s Not That Easy

The underlying story is the more you build, the more people use the infrastructure, said Gilles Duranton, professor of real estate at the University of Pennsylvania. 

Highways can increase mobility, but within a few years they can become just as clogged as everything else, he said.

“There are some benefits and there are some costs. Quantifying those benefits is really, really hard,” Duranton said. “The costs, eventually, we know about.”

As for the process, stakeholders for highway projects often come in two types: businesses and local officials who are pro-development and local residents and advocates who are anti-development, he said.

“It’s about getting the right balance and it’s really difficult to achieve,” Duranton said.

People who want to build seem to have the upper hand, but if you give more space to people who are going to say “no” then things never get done, even though sometimes they should, he said. 

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter.