CALLOWAY COUNTY — A few weeks ago, Calloway County Judge-Executive Kenny Imes asked some people he knew from the community to take a ride in the county with him.
It was not going to be for a long ride. But, in his words, “I want to show you something.”
Upon reaching the destination, reactions ranged from surprise to utter shock. The destination was the point of the U.S 641 South expansion project, where the highway begins making a sweeping right turn just south of the Clarks River, where dump trucks, excavators and bulldozers were engaged in numerous tasks.
“It’s just unbelievable … the progress,” said one of the day’s passengers, Amy Futrell of Murray, who, along with Imes and Murray-Calloway County Economic Development Corporation President Mark Manning, had traveled to Washington in 2018 to persuade federal officials to approve a $23-plus million grant for the expansion. It was approved the week before Christmas of that year.
What had Futrell basically speechless was taking her first view of the opening stages of the second half of the expansion. Part 1 is expected to be completed in a few months, the first mile south of Murray. Part 2 will eventually stretch to the Tennessee state line near Hazel, which will measure about six miles once completed.
It is something many in Calloway County were convinced would never happen. Now, here was Imes parking his pickup truck to allow his passengers to get a closer look of the work on foot.
“I want the people of Calloway County to know all that is going on out here,” he said, quickly moving to another idea. “The time frame, I think, is somewhat remarkable. I don’t know exactly how many years this has been on the drawing board, but I know the (U.S. 68/KY 80) concept was started about 40 years ago and we’re just now getting that completed.
“The thing I’m impressed with is how much faster, at least it seems that way to me, this is apparently working (once dirt was moved).”
It has only taken a little shy of two years for the first mile to reach its current point south of Murray.
The construction crew is from Jim Smith Construction in Grand Rivers and is contracted by the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet. By the time Imes and his passengers were able to get their up-close look that day, the big right turn just shy of a hill that takes the soon-to-be old highway into Midway had devoured about a quarter-mile of real estate.
Smoke rose in the distance, looking south, from fires set to burn trees that were removed to make room for the new road into ashes.
“You’ve got to understand that this is like building a house, really. I mean, we’re standing here right now looking at all of this, but it still supposed to be a 2 1/2-year project, at least,” Imes said, stressing patience.
That was the idea for the longest time for residents north of the state line, particularly those who frequently travel 641 South to Paris, Tennessee. For several years, they have watched with frustration as construction on that side had resulted in much progress, while nothing seemed to be happening in Calloway County.
Now, it appears the Kentucky side of the project may win the race to the state line near Hazel.
“And I think this would motivate them,” Imes said. “Henry County people coming into Murray now are going to know we’re serious about it, and I’ve heard the opposite idea all of my life. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, ‘Man! Why aren’t our roads like Tennessee’s?’”
For Futrell, who is a longtime board member for the EDC, it was a matter of pride as she watched as an excavator move tons of large rocks along a branch of the river.
“It’s earth shattering,” she said as the tour ended. “I did love seeing the progress on this. The biggest thing, though, is that it had to happen.
“This road was dangerous. It’s also the only way left out of Murray that is not four-lane, and this is the kind of progress we’ve needed for our community, so I was proud to be part of (the process that secured the grant in ’18).”
City of Murray Mayor Bob Rogers was not able to join the tour that day, but he has been closely following the situation. In fact, it was in March that KYTC District 1 Chief Engineer Kyle Poat visited the mayor and the rest of the Murray City Council a few weeks before the Part 2 work began.
That afternoon, he estimated that Part 2 would be completed, depending on the weather, by May 2023. Last week, Rogers said he is very excited to see how quickly things have progressed so far with Part 2.
“I have been out there myself and I’ve got to admit that I’m surprised with how they’re moving,” Rogers said. “This one actually seems to be moving a little quicker than a lot of other projects seem to move these days.
“I had heard a lot of people (doubt they would see) the bridges happen (that carry 68/80 over Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley east of Murray), but those finally happened. It’s kind of the same thing with 641.”
KYTC District 1 Public Information Officer Keith Todd also said that there is a chance that this project will continue moving at a very quick pace.
“Most of this is going to be away from any main roads, so that’s going to allow the people working on this to not have to worry too much about competing with traffic. That always allows things to move smoother and faster,” Todd said.