Road infrastructure planning continues to frustrate Kenton County mayors

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The sluggishness and opacity of state road planning was again on the minds of Kenton County’s mayors at this month’s county mayors meeting, which took place in Taylor Mill on Saturday morning.

The discussion began with Erlanger Mayor Jessica Fette, who chairs the mayors group, describing her experience at a future planning meeting with the Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana Regional Council of Governments, often shortened to OKI, and the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet last Thursday.

From left to right: Erlanger Mayor Jessica Fette, Independence Mayor Chris Reinersman and Park Hills Mayor Kathy Zembrodt. Photo by Nathan Granger | LINK nky

“I felt like I came out with bloody knuckles,” Fette said, “and it was just a very intense meeting.”

Thursday’s planning meeting was OKI’s semi-annual SHIFT meeting. SHIFT is an acronym standing for the Strategic Highway Investment Formula for Tomorrow, and is the state’s way of prioritizing different road projects throughout the commonwealth, using a combination of feedback from local leaders and data analysis.

“The overall process is in place to create discussion between the city and county leaders to determine which projects have the highest impact to be given a priority to receive a boost,” said the cabinet in an email.

In short, the SHIFT process is a way for the transportation cabinet to prioritize funding and scheduling for state road projects. Projects are rated with numeric scores — the higher the score, the higher the project moves up on the priority list.

The meeting Fette and Independence Mayor Chris Reinersman had attended was part of the local boosting process, which assigns points to local projects that did not make the initial state scoring priorities. This boosting process is done in conjunction with local economic development groups, such as OKI. The meeting focused on 30 road projects throughout Kenton, Campbell and Boone counties. All of the projects came into the meeting with scores assigned to them based on the state’s initial analyses, and OKI had discretion to boost the scores of 13 of the 30 projects.

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The mayors had taken up the issue of road projects at the previous month’s meeting, and the way that state agencies manage road improvements and maintenance throughout Kentucky is an ongoing bugbear among local officials.

A photo of the Stevenson Road water main break on Sept. 9, 2023. Note the layers of pavement. Photo provided | Jessica Fette

As an example, Fette shared a photo with LINK nky of a water main break that occurred on Stevenson Road on Sept. 9, the repairs of which required extensive digging. During the repairs, another layer of pavement was revealed beneath the uppermost tarmac, which Fette saw as an indication of cutting corners — no pun intended — on the part of the cabinet.

The transportation cabinet responded in an email on Monday saying that the underlying concrete in the photo was an economical way of providing structural support for the asphalt overlay, “rather than completely tearing out and starting from scratch.”

In any case, many at Saturday’s meeting found the SHIFT scoring metrics to be inaccessible, difficult to understand and even arbitrary. As such, the mayors iterated that cohesive representation in future meetings was a must.

“I think there’s something that we can do better in the counties,” Fette said, “and it’s the county and the mayors being on the same page when we walk into that meeting… having like a tremendous amount of representation.”

Others at the mayors meeting expressed frustration at what they characterized as the cabinet’s lack of communication.

“I wasn’t even aware of this meeting,” said Villa Hills Mayor Heather Jansen. “We can’t represent if we have no idea what’s going on,”

What’s more, even though the cabinet describes the SHIFT metrics as objective, informed by factors like safety and economic importance, the process of assigning points struck many at the meeting as inescapably political.

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“Everybody has priorities,” said Kenton County Administrator Joe Shriver. “There’s going to be competing interests sometimes.”

Shriver recommended the mayors get the scores as soon as possible before the next meeting so that they could better plan.

“The whole system, I think, is flawed anyhow because they put Lexington, Louisville and Northern Kentucky all in the same region. We are competing for the same region,” Shriver said, even though those three regions aren’t adjacent.

Shriver claimed that a KYTC representative had told him this was to prevent Northern Kentucky from siphoning off road jobs from the other metro areas.

The transportation cabinet denied this in an email, saying that “in previous iterations of SHIFT, those three areas were in the same geographic region; however, in the current iteration of SHIFT regions aren’t used in the local prioritization process.”

“It’s supposed to be on merit,” Shriver said on Saturday. “I think more communication with some of these agencies leading up to this meeting will help.”

Coordinated representation was a must, Reinersman said, if the county and cities wanted their voices to be heard.

“It’s like making sausage,” Reinersman said. “I don’t think there’s a clean way to do it.”

Fette said that after the SHIFT meeting there were conversations about getting Kentucky Representative and former Erlanger Council Member Steve Doan (R-Erlanger) on the state transportation committee, although she did not offer details on whom she had spoken with.

“Steve Doan has Boone County and Kenton County,” Fette said. “So he’s a great person to be able to be our voice and fight for our projects.”

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Fette recommended the attendees at the meeting reach out to their state representatives to get Doan on the committee.

This may prove to be a challenge, however. At the end of the last legislative session, Doan was stripped of a committee assignment after opposing the passage of House Bill 594, which banned the use of so called gray machines throughout the state. Some of have speculated that his removal from committee was retaliation for opposing party leadership, and his past actions may impede his chances of future committee assignment.

Even though Doan’s access to the levers of power in the future are uncertain, many of the officials at Saturday’s meeting emphasized the imperative of lobbying state officials for help.

“I think we still need to get every Northern Kentucky legislator who has Kenton County in the October [mayors] meeting, and make it clear that this is unacceptable,” said Taylor Mill Mayor Daniel Bell.

Read the list of the road projects discussed at last week’s SHIFT meeting here. The column on the right marked ‘Total’ shows the boost score assigned to each project.

The next Kenton County Mayors meeting will take place on Oct. 21 at 9 a.m. A location for the meeting has not yet been firmly established.

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