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For most of Kentucky’s history, there were only two ways to get from one place to another: By horse or by boat. Even when railroads began reaching across the state in the 1830s, these methods of travel remained the backbone of our early transportation system.
While rivers were essentially open to anyone, the same could not be said of our first roads, almost all of which were privately owned even well past the Civil War. Those wanting to use them could expect to pay a hefty price, too, since toll gates were built about five miles apart on average.
In 1851, when the state standardized how much tolls could cost, those on horseback would be charged a nickel, but wagons being pulled by six animals would cost 75 cents, or more than $19 when adjusted for inflation.
Kentucky was initially a pioneer in transportation, because we were the first state to establish a highway department. It was relatively short-lived, however, lasting only from 1835 to the 1850s. In fact, the current constitution, which was enacted in 1891, pointedly barred the state from raising highway funds, leaving this responsibility to local governments. That didn’t change until 1909.
Three years later, the foundation of our current Transportation Cabinet was formed. This month, in fact, marks the 100th anniversary of the state’s first highway commissioner.
Understandably, the department started off small at first, with a staff of 14 and an annual budget of $25,000. In 1920, the state inherited 4,000 miles of roads that had been built by counties, though most were impassable for at least part of the year.
The state’s first four-lane highway, from Lexington to Versailles, came in 1938, and in 1954, the state’s first modern toll-road - from Louisville to Elizabethtown - was opened. Costing $33.2 million to build, it’s now part of I-65.
Two years later, Congress authorized the interstate highway system, which eventually led to the six main routes we have today and a seventh - I-69 in Western Kentucky - coming on board. Combined, they measure more than 700 miles, or about one percent of the 70,000-plus miles we now have in our local and state highway system.
Kentucky has often gotten high marks for the way it maintains its roads. A 2010 report by researchers based at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte ranked us 14th among the states overall. In the sub-rankings, Kentucky was found to have the best rural interstates and the lowest average administrative cost. Unfortunately, we were near the other end of the spectrum when it came to highway fatalities and traffic congestion along interstates in urban areas.
Earlier this year, the General Assembly authorized the latest two-year plan for our roads and bridges. It’s no small venture, with more than $4 billion worth of projects being approved. Our Road Fund, meanwhile, has been a bright spot in recent months, with healthy growth enabling us to move these projects along more quickly than initially thought.
As always, if you have any questions about this issue or anything else affecting the state, I would like to know. I hope to hear from you soon.
Rick Rand, D-Bedford, represents the 47th House District in the Kentucky General Assembly. He may be reached by writing to Room 351C, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601, or leave a message at (800) 372-7181 – TTY (800) 896-0305.