Interstate 66, once envisioned as a cross-continent highway from the Potomac to the Pacific, ends in a pile of dirt just past a cloverleaf interchange north of Somerset, Ky., the hometown of U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers.
Its completion is far from assured. But the fact that it got this far is a testament to the power of one member of Congress to get a new road through his district, even at a time when the state transportation secretary who approved it and a contractor that worked on it were under federal investigation.
Interstate 69 was supposed to be the “NAFTA highway,” a 1,700-mile job-generating corridor from Michigan to Texas, with Dawson Springs, the hometown of Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, right in the middle.
But the only thing new about I-69 in Kentucky is the number. It stitches together three old state parkways that require more than $800 million to bring them up to interstate standards, including an interchange in Beshear’s hometown.
While surrounding states have abandoned their efforts to build these interstates or have run out of money to finish them, the highways remain top priorities for two of Kentucky’s top officeholders: Rogers, a 16-term Republican, and Beshear, a two-term Democrat. Both men want the interstates as a boon for their hometowns. And both saw their advocacy translate into large contributions from road builders and highway engineers.
They shrugged off questions about the use of their influence to move the projects forward.
“For nearly two decades, I’ve pleaded with Kentucky leaders, road officials and neighboring states to get behind this vital east-west corridor by prioritizing this project with federal highway trust fund resources allocated annually to the state,” Rogers said in a statement about I-66. “Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened with any significant funds.”
Kentucky and other states confront massive shortfalls in their highway maintenance budgets due to rising construction costs, declining gasoline tax revenues and decades of federal highway spending that brought big business to local highway contractors.
A McClatchy examination of campaign finance data revealed a mutually beneficial relationship between Kentucky highway contractors and their local and state elected officials. The road construction industry in Kentucky and other states has long bankrolled candidates who, once elected, played key roles in what highway projects got built.“They’re always a big fundraiser,” said Trey Grayson, a former Kentucky secretary of state who’s the director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “At the end of the day, they want to be winners.”
Kentucky road builders give generously to both parties. Federal and state campaign-finance disclosures show that in the past 15 years, road construction company executives, employees and their families have given more than $3 million to federal, state and local officeholders, including more than $500,000 to Kentucky's current and former governors, and more than $700,000 to members of Congress.
Charles Lovorn, the executive director of the Kentucky Association of Highway Contractors, said there was no link between campaign donations and road contracts.
“As transportation contractors, the industry supports both the administration and legislators. I doubt that Kentucky is any different than any other state,” he said. “Like all campaign contributors, the industry supports candidates who have similar views.”
According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, nearly a quarter of Kentucky’s roads are in poor or mediocre condition and nearly a third of its bridges are deficient or obsolete. Kentucky faces a growing maintenance backlog, and the state has borrowed $1.1 billion in the past decade to improve its major interstates.
But it can be hard to break old habits.
“Once they get their mind on something, it’s hard to change it,” said Donna Cooper, a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress in Washington. “Legacy political commitments are problematic.”
Congress designated I-66 and I-69 as “High Priority Corridors” more than two decades ago, and they compete with Kentucky’s other highway needs at a time of reduced funding.
“These projects provide a striking example of what is wrong with the nation’s transportation funding system,” said Ryan Alexander, the president of the fiscally conservative advocacy group Taxpayers for Common Sense. “Far too often, political might is a bigger driver of what gets built than public benefit.”
Kentucky faces a combined road and bridge maintenance backlog of at least $1.6 billion, but its transportation plan lists four “megaprojects,” including interstates and two new Ohio River bridges.
The 50-year-old Sherman Minton Bridge between Kentucky and Indiana was closed for five months in 2011 to repair a hidden crack that could have collapsed the span.
"This is a poster child for deteriorating infrastructure," said Rep. John Yarmuth, a Democrat who represents Louisville in the U.S. House of Representatives. Yarmuth has said that funding to replace the deteriorating bridges in his district should come before building new roads.
John Horsley, who retired in January as the executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said state transportation departments needed to be able to make their own decisions about highway investments without political interference.
“States don’t have enough money to spread it everywhere a lobbying group wants to spend it,” he said. “They have to put it where it makes the most sense.”
ROAD LESS TRAVELED
While other states long ago decided they had better things to build than I-66, Rogers, the chairman of the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee, has brought more than $100 million in earmarked funds to Kentucky in the past 15 years for the road, now a 3.67-mile freeway with two interchanges.
If you drive it, you won’t see the I-66 shield. It does, however, appear on Google Maps.
The planned 35-mile I-66 from Somerset to London, Ky., would parallel a lightly traveled state road that was financed under a federal anti-poverty program intended to improve highway access in 13 Appalachian states.
The new highway would slice through the Daniel Boone National Forest, and the potential impact on caves, streams, rivers and animal habitats has generated environmentalists’ opposition for years.
The Sierra Club identified the road as one of the country’s 26 worst projects in 2002. In a December report, the club proclaimed the I-66 project dead. But opponents may have underestimated Rogers.
“Congressman Rogers is an extremely effective member,” said former Rep. Dan Glickman, a Kansas Democrat who led an early and unsuccessful drive for I-66 to be routed through Wichita. “He’s the right man for the job, certainly.”
Rogers defended the highway and said he wished he could have found more funding to build it.
Some of those federal funds required a state match. Others were never intended for a project such as I-66. In 2006, the project was awarded $4.2 million in interstate maintenance discretionary funds, even though it didn’t meet the criteria.
Chuck Wolfe, a spokesman for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, said “a four-lane connector from Somerset to London – whether it’s called I-66 or ultimately something else – has long been and continues to be one of the Cabinet’s objectives.”
“Our Kentucky highway plan is the expression of our priorities,” he said.
But Joe Prather, a former president of the Kentucky state Senate and the state’s transportation secretary from 2007 to 2009, expressed a different view of I-66.
“Stacked up against all of the projects we had to take a serious look at, that didn’t rank near the top of the list,” he told McClatchy.
Prather became the head of Kentucky’s transportation department after a series of scandals that engulfed the administration of Republican former Gov. Ernie Fletcher, a key Rogers ally. Fletcher and 15 members of his administration were indicted in 2006 on charges that they’d fired career employees in the transportation department and replaced them with political appointees.
Fletcher issued a blanket pardon to members of his staff and admitted wrongdoing in a deal that dropped the charges against him. He lost re-election to Beshear in 2007.
“Kentucky is one of those states which has had off-and-on problems with ethics, not only in the Fletcher administration.” said Don Gross, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky who’s an expert on campaign finance.
Fletcher, a doctor and former congressman and the first Republican Kentucky governor in three decades, received more than $300,000 in campaign donations from highway contractors, their families and employees, according to campaign disclosure data.
Gross said Fletcher wasn’t “doing anything previous people haven’t done.”
In a statement, Fletcher wouldn’t comment on the campaign contributions.
"We campaigned on building those roads,” he said. “They are the roads to Kentucky’s economic development."
Fletcher’s transportation secretary, Bill Nighbert, and Leonard Lawson, the owner of one of the state’s biggest highway contractors, were indicted in 2008 on bid-rigging charges, months after Lawson’s company, Bizzack Construction, won a $31 million contract for a project that included the bridges and an interchange on the first section of I-66 in Somerset.
A jury in federal court acquitted Nighbert and Lawson in 2010. By then, Lawson’s company had finished the work on I-66, also known as the Somerset Northern Bypass.
The U.S. Department of Transportation had barred Lawson’s company from receiving more federal money for road projects while he was under indictment. But the company won bids totaling $24 million from President Barack Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus program to pave Kentucky roads, prompting a rebuke from the DOT inspector general.
A second Kentucky company, Hinkle Contracting Corp., which won a $36 million contract to work on I-66, wasn’t implicated in the investigation. Employees of Hinkle and its affiliates, along with their family members, have donated more than $480,000 to state and federal candidates in the past 15 years.
Beshear, a lawyer and former lieutenant governor, has been a big beneficiary of campaign money from road-building interests, collecting more than $200,000 from highway contractors in the state, mostly during his two runs for governor since 2007.
Kerri Richardson, a Beshear spokeswoman, said that while he welcomed donations from his supporters, “they never have and never will have any impact on the decisions he makes as governor.”
Richardson said state transportation projects were competitively bid, reviewed and evaluated by state officials, and the governor didn’t participate in the process. “From the time he was elected, Gov. Beshear has made his decisions based on the best interests of the taxpayers of Kentucky, and he will continue to do so,” she said.
Though I-69 in Kentucky was proposed long before Beshear took office, he’s now one of its leading supporters. Another is the Obama administration.
Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez stood alongside Beshear in Dawson Springs when the first 38-mile segment of the interstate was dedicated in October 2011.
But it may be years, if ever, before I-69 in Kentucky connects to other states.
In December, Tennessee Transportation Commissioner John Schroer halted construction on a 65-mile portion of I-69 that would connect Memphis to Dyersburg, Tenn., 50 miles south of the Kentucky border.
“The $1.5 billion cost estimate represents more than 100 percent of Tennessee’s annual federal construction funding,” he wrote in the Memphis newspaper The Commercial Appeal. “To spend that on one project . . . would not only be a disservice to all Tennesseans, but it would also be downright irresponsible and potentially dangerous.”
To the north, Indiana is running out of money to finish its part of I-69, a road pushed by business interests with strong support from two former governors: the late Frank O’Bannon, a Democrat, and Mitch Daniels, a Republican who left office in January.
The state recently opened 67 miles of the highway to a point roughly halfway from Evansville to Indianapolis, but it’s spent nearly all the $700 million it had budgeted for the project.
And there’s yet another missing piece: a new bridge over the Ohio River to Kentucky. Neither state has the $1 billion it needs to build it.
Wolfe, the Kentucky transportation spokesman, said the state would press ahead with its I-69 project, regardless of what neighboring states decided to do.
“It does not change our plans in Kentucky,” he said. “The affected parkways will be upgraded to interstate standards.”