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When I moved back to Shelby County several years ago, I was driving east from KY 55 onto Interstate 64 when an idea nearly hit me right in the side of my SUV or maybe right between my eyes.
Because that notion arrived dangerously quickly with the 75-mph motion of oncoming traffic into which I was trying to merge or arose frighteningly fast in front of me in the form of the guardrail at the end of the acceleration lane on that ramp. I can’t be sure which, because each seemed about to christen me with opportunity.
Luckily that day – and dozens more days in the coming years – I avoided with pulse pounding what could have been a nasty collision by squeezing onto a narrow emergency lane.
But even if my vehicle was unscathed, I was struck by one undeniable conclusion: That acceleration lane, which had been in place since I was in elementary school, had outlived the vehicles and the public it was designed to serve.
I read weekly about a lot of good happening in Shelby County.
An outlet mall is about to open and add more than a thousand jobs. A new factory will be built in Simpsonville and bring in 400 more. Auto businesses are expanding and growing. The Blue Gables is being restored. A distillery is planning to build and open, and a woman is trying to bring the county’s alcohol laws into the 21st century (and arguably the 20th). A new elementary school will replace one that is older than my baby clothes, and that follows the new prekindergarten center that debuted earlier this year in another old schoolhouse. Horse show season is in full swing, and no one has lost a crop to weather problems.
But, if you ask me, the biggest development of all is the replacement of that eastbound merge lane.
That new long and open ramp will save lives, and its urgent construction may be the finest hour for this county in the past 10 years.
I say this because it is the clearest example I’ve seen of government doing the right thing at the right time for the right reason. A system that so often can’t turn quickly enough or in the right direction must be applauded for doing the best that it could – for once.
Because of my near impact on that deadly piece of obsolescent highway, its replacement had become a cause for our editorial pages in The Sentinel-News.
Yes, we campaigned for the bypass construction to be completed, and it was. We’ve championed downtown development, better education, transparent police work, the concept of a downtown arts/conference center and tourism growth and parks expansion and, yes, garbage service for all. We were for romancing Harley-Davidson and the outlet mall in Simpsonville, too.
But that this replacement ramp was opened not long after I relinquished the editor’s chair to me represented the most important work a newspaper can do. And it created no small sense of accomplishment.
An escalation of this idea first began through an editorial and then a front-page news report in which the dangers of the ramp were described by experts and depicted by timely photographs.
Its momentum was gained through tragedy, when two drivers gave up their lives while unintentionally illustrating our point. A couple more nearly did, and that was only the accidents about which we were aware.
This shorter-than-standard acceleration lane, which probably had caused more hearts to stop than it had vehicles to go, simply was going to become worse. Expanding industry meant that more large trucks would be using its access, and new hotel and retail development was expected to grow from the opening of the outlet mall just down the road, That meant more vehicles at an interchange designed for a vehicle every five minutes or so.
That the state Transportation Cabinet responded quickly to our suggestions with some cosmetic changes aimed at improving visibility was a wonder unto itself.
But then a few of our elected leaders – most notably Magistrate Tony Carriss, state Sen. Paul Hornback and state Rep. Brad Montell – picked up our cause. Like you, they live in Shelby County and drive that ramp. They have experienced that split-second confrontation with danger, and they wanted to do something about it.
A newspaper in itself can accomplish very little other than to understand, underline and underwrite ideas that are for the good of the community.
We can’t put our money where our mouths are, but we can put our mouth where the money is – in this case, the state road budget.
Prodded by our words and images and encouraged by Hornback, Montell and Carriss, state leaders agreed to advance the replacement of the interchange and its acceleration lane – and the extended widening of I-64 between Simpsonville and Shelbyville – on a, well, accelerated timetable.
So it was that from the first time this idea was mentioned in print, not five years elapsed before the work was complete.
In government terms, that’s like running a 9-second 100-meter dash. It’s being Usain Bolt in our political world. It was overwhelmingly wonderful, even if traffic was backed up a bit each afternoon during the construction.
So when I read about the 350,000 square feet or so of specialty shops about to open or new people about to be hired, that all seems to be happening pretty darned fast.
But that speed was nothing when compared to how an acceleration lane was made safer for all of us.
Next time you slide more seamlessly into traffic there, think about that, will you?
Steve Doyle, a former editor of The Sentinel-News, lives in Greensboro, N.C. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.