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McClatchy Muckrakers Expose Seedy Underbelly of the Highway Bonanza

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The work of a sustainable transportation reporter can be a lonely lot. But it’s a lot less lonely now that two McClatchy reporters, Curtis Tate and Greg Gordon, have taken up the mantle of exposing wasteful road expansion.

With their far-reaching and well-researched three-part series, published last Sunday, Tate and Gordon brought stories of highway corruption and waste to a mainstream print audience. They spent four months researching the series, digging into 15 years of campaign finance records and interviewing leaders inside and outside of the transportation field.

“America’s highway system,” they wrote, “once a symbol of freedom and mobility envied the world over, is crumbling physically and financially, the potentially disastrous consequence of a politically driven road-building binge.”

Kentucky and South Carolina still gripped by highway madness

Tate is from the same hometown as Rep. Hal Rogers, the powerful Kentucky Republican who wields the gavel of the Appropriations Committee in the House. Tate couldn’t help but notice that Kentucky was using its federal formula funds to build Rogers’ pet project (I-66) while borrowing against future federal highway funds to do badly needed maintenance and repair work. The state has even used $4.2 million in interstate maintenance funds for I-66, despite the fact that the project didn’t meet the necessary criteria.

Meanwhile, although surrounding states have given up on their plans to create a new interstate, I-69, Kentucky charges forth. Rogers and Democratic Governor Steve Beshear “have received large contributions from road builders and highway engineers” but deny that these donations have influenced their zealous cheerleading for the project. Kentucky's part of the new interstate will essentially stitch together three existing roads and slap the number 69 on them – meanwhile widening them to four-lane highways simply to meet interstate standards. Tate and Gordon said that their “examination of campaign finance data revealed a mutually beneficial relationship between Kentucky highway contractors and their local and state elected officials.”

But this story doesn’t end with Kentucky. The push to get I-73 built in South Carolina is just as unsavory (although it doesn’t end, as the Kentucky story does, with the former governor and 15 members of his administration getting indicted on corruption charges related to politicking in the transportation department).

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