Around 400 people packed into a church gymnasium Tuesday in Hazel to learn about and weigh in on planned improvements to a highway in southern Calloway County.
The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet displayed proposals for a new, expanded US 641 from Murray to the Tennessee state line. The county recently received a $23 million federal BUILD grant for the project. Local leaders say the reconstruction is needed due to heavy traffic and safety concerns.
The three proposed routes run east, west and through the City of Hazel, which is situated on the border. The small town of around 400 is well known as a destination for antiquing. The proposed route through the city would follow the existing roadway, widen it to three lanes and then return to two lanes through the city to minimize impacts of the historic properties.
The proposed route east of the existing corridor and city would be a four-lane divided highway, would impact the fewest residential properties, would have a sizeable environmental impact due to the Clarks River and would be the most expensive on the Kentucky side. Palmer Engineering technical writer Bobi Conn noted this area is also prone to flooding and unstable soil.
The proposed route to the west is what KYTC is calling its "preferred alternative" and comes with some variations. According to a handout, the public input gathered from the Wednesday meeting is "important to the process of ultimately selecting the Preferred Alternative." The questionnaire at the event included checking boxes about property location and project interest, US 641 usage, problems with the existing road, expectations for the new road, route preferences and any other comments or concerns.
The project will tie into 641 just south of the Tennessee state line. The Tennessee Department of Transportation has separate projects underway on their end. The Federal Highway Administration acts as a mediator between the state agencies with regard to picking a "meeting point" on the state line.
Gary Scruggs is from T-DOT Region Four Project Development. He and other representatives attended the event to gather information. He said the Tennessee side is "re-evaluating what we're going to do. We’re not sure what we’re going to do yet. Kentucky’s going to decide what they’re going to do. And then, of course, we have to match it. We have no decision yet.”
Explaining why this expansion/reconstruction project is important, Public Information Officer Keith Todd said, “We have a saying within the agency that roads create commerce and commerce creates jobs.” Also, safety is a major factor - with around 430 accidents on 641 between Murray and Hazel over the past five years. The road sees around 6,000 vehicles per day.
Todd also suggested the road is overdue for an update: “When 641 was built probably in the 1930s the average car was like a Model A Ford. The heaviest truck on the road weighed maybe 28 tons. Of course, now we have semis that weigh 80,000 pounds traveling these roads. We have SUVs that nobody dreamed of back in the 1930s.”
KYTC project branch manager Chris Kuntz said he was encouraged by the turnout and noted feedback being mixed, though most people favored a new highway. He, as well as Keith Todd, said they received feedback from people whose property or homes are affected by the project. Bobi Conn said some, however, were happy to learn their properties were not impacted by the preferred route.
Murray Mayor Bob Rogers said, it's understandable that people are upset about the road going through their land, but noted the road has to go somewhere. He said he prefers the west route. Rogers anticipates a safer roadway, improved economic development and an increase in visitors to Murray from Tennessee.
“I didn’t think I’d live to see the two bridges open [new bridges connecting Land Between the Lakes], but I did. I don’t know if I’d see this or not, but I hope so," Rogers said.
Hazel Mayor John "Scooter" Paschall said, “Everything has to change at some point. I hate seeing farmlands and everything broken up. I hate to see homes taken out of it. But it’s part of change. I feel for those people. But we’re just going to go ahead and do what we’ve got to do.”
Should the new road go east or west of Hazel, Paschall said taking some of the traffic out of the city is not exactly what a business wants, but expressed confidence the city will be OK.
“For the City of Hazel, I honestly think that we’re going to be fine. This is a destination city," he said "It’s not something like some of the smaller cities where they might have had just an old post office and a grocery store that had been bypassed and kind of died out in the years past. We’ve got 10 to 12 viable antique stores. We’ve got a restaurant, we’ve got a bank. We’ve got our two convenience stores.”
Paschall owns the Blue and White Grill downtown and offered his thoughts both as mayor and a downtown business owner. “[Hazel]'s already established as a destination. I would like to think that our restaurant in the City of Hazel - if you want to come and eat there you’re going to find it. If you want to come see antiques you’re going to find us.”
Paschall noted possibilities for Hazel involving annexing outward and the potential for new businesses opening up along the new route. He said the "biggest thing" is making sure signage on the new road directs people to Hazel and its offerings.
“I think that instead of looking at this as ‘we’re going to dry up and we’re going to be gone’ I look at it as a chance for us to grow. In four years if I’m not reelected as the city mayor again, I’d like to think that at least nothing else I’ve laid down the footwork for the next mayor to come in that they could continue to do what we’re doing right now and continue to grow," he said.
In describing working with other community leaders, Paschall said, “It’s not Calloway County, the City of Murray, the City of Hazel. They’re not separate entities anymore. It’s all one unity. If we can continue that then this area - the whole area - as far as Calloway County, the City of Hazel and Murray - they’re going to continue to grow and they’re going to grow all together as one thing. Make this a destination for people to bring their families in, to build here, to bring in new businesses and industries with the possibility of this four-lane.”
Another public hearing is scheduled for August once the Environmental Assessment is completed and prior to a final decision.