Saturday, March 23, 2002

I-71 project near Louisville may face delay

Federal agency wants to see impact review

The Associated Press

        LOUISVILLE — The planned widening of Interstate 71, a project that was to have begun in 2007, might be delayed — or perhaps even derailed — after a Louisville citizens' group raised questions about it.

        The Federal Highway Administration has asked Kentucky to conduct a full environmental assessment of the I-71 project, looking at several alternatives to widening — including dedicating lanes to buses, mass transit or light rail.

        Jose Sepulveda, of the highway administration office in Frankfort, acknowledged on Thursday that his staff previously had signed off on widening the interstate from four lanes to six.

        But, as more was learned, his staff became convinced widening would not resolve congestion problems over the next 20 years, he said.

        The widening was planned from Spaghetti Junction near downtown Louisville to the Gene Snyder Freeway — about 10 miles. The project, already in the preliminary design stage, would cost about $40 million.

        Mark Pfeiffer, a spokesman for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, said that such an assessment likely would delay the project. He estimated an analysis would take 18 months or longer.

        Mr. Sepulveda said an environmental assessment would examine how various efforts, including widening or bus lanes, would impact homes, wetlands and neighborhoods.

        The state had maintained earlier that a full-scale environmental impact analysis would not be required because the widening would use the grassy median to add one lane in both directions, rather than taking land on either side of the interstate. Such widening would have minimal environmental effects, Mr. Pfeiffer said.

        David Jones, a state highway engineer, said I-71 was scheduled for widening because it's near vehicle capacity.

        Interstates are graded based on congestion, from A (the best), to E (the worst), and parts of I-71 are at D, he said.

        Overall, 68,200 vehicles travel I-71 at the Snyder Freeway daily, Mr. Jones said, and the section near Spaghetti Junction sees 55,100. “It's only going to get worse,” he said.

        Jackie Green, director for the Coalition for the Advancement of Regional Transportation, began raising concerns about the I-71 project last year after learning it was to be widened to six lanes and, perhaps, eight lanes eventually.

        The project is on the state's six-year road plan — a list of projects the state hopes to pay for over a six-year period.

        To fight the I-71 widening, Ms. Green has been writing federal officials, who have oversight on transportation projects.

        In a letter to the EPA in July, Ms. Green said the public largely was unaware of the project and asked that an environmental impact study be conducted. The affected neighborhoods “deserve” the study and the public scrutiny it brings, she wrote.

        Ms. Green's letter raised concerns at the EPA's Atlanta office, which has jurisdiction over Kentucky. EPA officials wrote the Federal Highway Administration, which in turn, echoed the concerns to the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet in a letter delivered in January.

        Officials for the Transportation Cabinet and highway administration say they will discuss the concerns before determining how to proceed with the project.


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