Transportation experts outline critical needs of Kentucky infrastructure

During a recent mid-year update by Kentuckians for Better Transportation (KBT), industry leaders talked about the current state of transportation, the effects of COVID-19 on funding and the path forward.

“Transportation has always been a force for economic progress,” said Kentucky Transportation Cabinet Secretary Jim Gray, who gave practical insight into triumphs and shortfalls of the past six months.

Gray was one of several transportation experts who took part in the meeting, which took place virtually. Featured speakers included Nicole Nason, administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, and Finch Fulton, deputy secretary for policy of the U.S. Department of Transportation, along with past and present KBT leadership.

Nicole Nason, administrator of the Federal Highway Administration; Finch Fulton, deputy secretary for policy of the U.S. Department of Transportation; Jim Gray, Secretary of Kentucky Transportation Cabinet; Mark Day, outgoing KBT chair.

Outgoing KBT chair Mark Day reminded attendees that their role in the transportation industry is essential. He mentioned how KBT members, which include representatives of local governments, chambers of commerce, and major manufacturing and logistics companies, are an integral part of the American economy moving goods and people safely and efficiently.

The Federal Perspective

KBT, which works to educate and advocate for all modes of transportation, held its annual meeting in January, which for many speakers seemed much longer than six months ago. Nason thanked attendees for their part serving the American public during this COVID-19 national emergency and gave shout-outs to Kentucky natives in the department including Todd Jeter and Todd Inman.

“I believe transportation is a team sport,” Nason said, as she outlined how the Federal Highway Administration works to support all modes of transportation to keep America moving.

Year over year, interstate travel is down 47%, largely due to COVID-19. This has a direct impact on state revenue. Nason showed empathy for the ripple effect that decreased funding has on local, state, and national levels. While declines are noticeable and challenging, she shared several ways the federal government is working to address concerns and mitigate long term difficulties.

Fulton praised Kentucky for its recent grant applications for INFRA and BUILD funding, which he mentioned were higher quality and higher scoring than previous years. He emphasized the federal government’s commitments to investing in rural infrastructure and programs designed to increase funding for safer rural roadways.

The Kentucky Perspective

Sec. Gray prefaced his comments by saying that the most successful companies acknowledge the brutal facts of their current reality. He assured attendees that the Cabinet is working to be practical as it moves forward with a glass-half-full outlook.

While the highway construction program was very robust six months ago, the realities of COVID-19 and its impact on funding have caused the department to tighten its belt and operate with reduced revenues.

He talked about the unprecedented situation and the work that Kentucky government led by Gov. Andy Beshear has done to put the safety of Kentuckians first.

Summer is traditionally the heaviest construction season with the highest need for funds. Estimates provided to the Cabinet show at least a $161 million (or around 10%) shortfall predicted in the Road Fund. Legislative leadership dedicated itself to continuing the program in a meaningful and robust way, despite the dip in funds.

Gray ended on a positive note, sharing that Kentucky has seen a significant drop in roadway fatalities in 2020. “Everyone can play a role in making our highways safer,” said Gray, encouraging all to be a good example as active partners.

Looking Ahead

Both Gray and KBT leadership highlighted the power of citizens who advocate for their priorities. With competing interests and less funding to go around, the public has the power to influence legislators and decision makers to support funding and implement shovel-ready projects.

“Our voice is amplified at home,” said Day. “We know our own turf and the direct impacts of transportation in our area to be an advocate and a resource.”

While the first half of 2020 is looking much differently than predicted in January, Day emphasized that its still a great time to be a KBT member and a Kentuckian.

— Rachel Nix

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