Home » Lane One-On-One: Kentucky Transportation Cabinet Secretary Jim Gray

Lane One-On-One: Kentucky Transportation Cabinet Secretary Jim Gray

By Mark Green

Jim Gray was appointed secretary of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet in 2019 by Gov. Andy Beshear. Gray was mayor of Lexington from 2011 to 2019 and vice mayor prior to that. As Lexington’s mayor, Gray initiated major reforms and projects, including police and fire pension plan stabilization, the renovation and expansion of Rupp Arena and the Lexington Convention Center, phases of the Newtown Pike extension, and making Lexington at one point the largest gigabit city in the nation. He has held positions including CEO and board chairman with Lexington-based Gray Construction, one of the 20 largest engineering, design and construction firms in the U.S., which was founded by his parents in 1960 in Glasgow. As Transportation Cabinet secretary, Gray leads a statewide team of more than 4,400 employees and oversees an operating and construction budget of nearly $4 billion. He guided the Cabinet’s award-winning 41-day emergency repair of the Brent Spence Bridge after a fiery 2020 truck crash and successfully secured federal grant funding worth $1.63 billion for the Brent Spence Bridge Corridor project. Gray is one of the founders of the Design Build Institute of America. He has a bachelor’s degree in history from Vanderbilt University and was a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design.  

Mark Green: What are the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet’s top challenges?  

 Jim Gray: We’re seeing more economic growth and development than has ever been seen in my lifetime and I’ve been around this all my life. We are recruiting industry, manufacturing, jobs. This is the golden age. I compare BlueOval SK (the $5.8 billion electric-vehicle battery manufacturing park being built in Hardin County) with Toyota (coming to Kentucky in 1986). I was on the Toyota project close to 40 years ago (when Gray Construction was) building the plastics shop, and at that time that entire project was an $800 million investment; today it would be $2.3 billion. BlueOval alone is $6 billion. Look at what Toyota’s $2.3 billion in present value dollars has represented over the last 40 years to Kentucky.  

 I try to put what’s occurring today in the context of our known past, which some of us can still recall, and for me it represents a signal moment in Kentucky’s history for economic growth and development. It says this a great time to be a Kentuckian and it’s a great time to welcome everyone to this new Kentucky home.  

 MG: What is some of the primary work?  

 JG: The work of the cabinet involves more than 4,400 employees and in the short time I’ve been here—4 1/2 years—I’ve observed just how committed and talented and passionate these people are to serve their fellow Kentuckians. We have 12 districts across the state maintaining nearly 28,000 miles of highways and 9,000 state bridges. Keeping all that running is a real feat for the 3,400 out of the 4,400 employees in the Department of Highways.   

 This cabinet is differentiating itself from other (states’) transportation cabinets, and one of those areas is in our strategic operations planning process. The Transportation Cabinet is truly the operations backbone of state government. Transportation has employees in every county in the state, and these folks are often called on first for an emergency. When the tornadoes hit Western Kentucky, we were the first of the first responders because we often had to clear the roads before emergency first responders could actually get to the victims. That occurred in Western Kentucky with the tornadoes and in Eastern Kentucky with the floods.   

 We also took on scopes of work outside what you would call the conventional job of the Transportation Cabinet; for example, the housing mission in both Western and Eastern Kentucky. After the disasters it was the Transportation Cabinet that came in and assisted Kentucky Emergency Management with bringing travel trailers in for those who were displaced. When the governor asked us to take on these additional scopes it was easy for me because the core skill at the Transportation Cabinet, especially in the Department of Highways, is project management and problem solving. You have a bunch of engineers who love to solve problems.  

 MG: The Brent Spence Bridge is only one of many important projects on Kentucky’s agenda now, but it is THE biggest infrastructure project. What is the expectation for its progress and completion?  

 JG: I’m happy to report we are on schedule. The project team is working well together; that is ODOT, Ohio Department of Transportation, and Kentucky Department of Transportation and the Walsh Kokosing design-build team. The design-build delivery model is unique and appropriate for a mega-project of this size and scale. This project received the largest single Bipartisan Infrastructure Law appropriation up until the last edition of those grant awards—a large grant that was roughly 22 bundled together totaling $1.6 billion. We’re still working on estimates on budgeting the project.  

 We’re targeting groundbreaking for the fall for the first scopes of the project. It will not be the full project for the entire (9-mile) corridor at that time; it will be some early phases of the project. This is a five- to seven-year project. It’s just huge. Best case conditions, we’re looking at a five-year project. There’s a lot on the Kentucky side and there’s even more on the Ohio side. The Western Hills Viaduct project on the Cincinnati side is a massive project itself (connecting I-75 and major roads on Cincinnati’s west side to downtown and uptown to convey 55,000-plus vehicles a day over Mill Creek Valley and a large, active railroad yard). And there is the actual approach to the bridge.  

The Western Hills Viaduct is a complex project because it’s going over the railroad yard; it’s especially hard to do a project like this over long-established urban infrastructure. The contractors and the designers and the engineers are all working collaboratively with the owners—the Ohio and Kentucky departments of transportation—to fully explore all opportunities for improving the cost and the quality of the project and creating the safest conditions.  

 MG: What are the elements on the Kentucky side?  

 JG: The basic elements include widening the corridor itself. The entire corridor including Kentucky and Ohio is roughly 9 miles, including the bridge. There is a lot of road work, a lot of bridges that are outside of the main bridge itself over the Ohio River. All of what we’re describing is a real challenge, and that’s why we took this route of a progressive design build. It’s an innovative delivery model. It’s time-tested, however, and it’s one I’m very familiar with from having been in the construction industry myself and having practiced it in the “vertical world,” the buildings world. It’s a newer model for transportation, but it essentially brings the engineers and the contractors together earlier in the process so you can do a better job of budgeting and estimating and value engineering—determining the cost, determining the schedule, and making sure we’re getting the quality and safety that is essential.  

 MG: A regular road project can take 10 or 12 years to accomplish. It seems really aggressive to pull this off in five to seven years?  

 JG: Think about it this way: There’s already been a lot of work up to this point. We’ve had several years of environmental assessment work and of planning, of estimating, of designing. There’s a healthy amount of work actually behind us. This can be described as an aggressive schedule that is also very achievable.  

 MG: Can contractors and providers still get in on this project? If so, how?  

 JG: Absolutely. The design-build team of Walsh Kokosing, the joint venture, is still looking to build out their team, so yes, the opportunity still exists. The Brent Spence Bridge Corridor portion of the project has a “Work With Us” page on the website (walshkokosing.com/work-with-us) that’s designed to connect potential subcontractors with Walsh Kokosing. 

 MG: What role does state government have, if any, in awarding subcontracts? Does it vet or review subcontract bids and bidders?  

 JG: As partners in the project, as the owners, KYTC and ODOT are responsible for reviewing the contractor’s plan and their process for bringing on subcontractors so that we know there is alignment with the project goals and that they are compliant with state and federal regulations. As is the case with any of our state projects, soliciting and awarding contracts is the responsibility of the contractor. In this case, it is Walsh Kokosing. We want to make sure there is a single source of responsibility and authority; that’s one of the main benefits of the progressive design-build delivery model.  

 MG: KYTC engineers and inspectors review existing infrastructure and ongoing work daily. How do Kentucky bridges and highways compare to those of peer and neighbor states?  

 JG: Kentucky is routinely ranked at the top in the country for efficiency, for our construction engaged and our construction executed—the value per dollar and per mile. The 27th Annual Highway Report (2023) found Kentucky’s highways and bridges ranked seventh in overall performance and cost-effectiveness.  

 Our agency has a very high reputation among our peers in other states for having been innovative in not only road and highway design and construction but also in maintenance. We’re trying to ensure we’re getting the best value out of every taxpayer dollar that’s invested in our highway projects.  

 Think of the rumble strips on the highway. This was not a feature a few years ago and now the safety associated with the rumble strip is something that is expected. We are continuously examining our road system for average daily travel, ADT, and this is what builds the governor’s highway plan that the legislature just passed. There are 1,371 projects in that plan, and each one has four phases. 

 And that’s just the projects in the highway plan. That doesn’t include our maintenance work. We’ve talked a lot about highways, but don’t forget that we’re involved in our air transportation, with 57 municipal airports in the state. We have responsibility for barge river transportation. We have an influence with our public transit through transfer of federal money to our major cities. Don’t forget driver licensing—we’ve stood up 32 regional offices in the last four years, and this is the real ID program. We’re managing that as well.  

 MG: What feedback does KYTC get from the business and commercial community? What is at the top of their agenda?  

 JG: Let’s take one of the principal advocacy groups, KBT, Kentuckians For Better Transportation. They do an exceptional job advocating for improved highway and transportation systems. That includes advocating for increased funding and enhanced safety. They’re not just talking about cars and trucks but about pedestrians and bicyclists and encouraging us to think differently. We have a great team focused on bicycle and pedestrian modes of transportation. I put importance on it.   

 The Kentucky Chamber has a transportation committee. There’s always an interest in the private sector for increased funding and to advocate for an improved transportation system. They all have an interest in what the cabinet does, and we welcome their points of view and contributions to encouraging improved conditions.  

 I’ve been talking about our highways and highway system, but don’t let me forget to advocate for other modes of transportation. The big driver for this is economic growth and development. They’re not asking for increased funding casually. They’re asking for it because they recognize good roads and highways and bridges are key to economic growth and development.  

 Kentucky has grown in the last 50 years out of being an agrarian and farming-focused rural state into being a very manufacturing-centric state. In automotive manufacturing we’re either (ranked in the top) two or three. Clearly the manufacturing sector is highly dependent and reliant on good roads and highways, good transportation systems.  

 MG: How do you assess the status of Kentucky’s highway and bridge construction community? Are its resources and manpower able to meet the state’s project needs and wants?  

 JG: Yes! We have a group at the University of Kentucky called the Kentucky Transportation Center. It’s a research unit associated with the university and funded by the Transportation Cabinet that works collaboratively with us on projects to encourage research and development. On occasion the industry contributes to that research as well. 

 I would say it’s a robust, seasoned and efficient road and bridge construction contractor community and engineering community. It’s remarkable to look at these projects and see how much is required to get even a small project done. You often have to get an environmental assessment. You have to secure right of way. If it’s a widening project or a new project, you have to engage the utilities. After you’ve done the environmental, then the engineering, then the right-of-way acquisition, then utilities, only then do you get to actually break ground on construction.  

MG: What is the cabinet’s relationship with county road departments?  

 JG: We work very closely with our county road colleagues, especially in disaster response. While those are often unfortunate circumstances, it’s shown us the remarkable value of working together and what we can accomplish when we provide direct help for literally tens of thousands of Kentuckians. In terms of infrastructure, we provide assistance through emergency road aid and gas tax sharing with our counties. Our engineers meet regularly with county and city governments on rural secondary paving programs.  

 MG: Kentucky’s road fund revenue and funding formula has relied on gas and diesel taxes, but that has evolved due to driving habits, gas mileage, new fuels and new vehicles. Are current funding mechanisms adequate?  

 JG: Kentucky’s road fund revenue structure still relies heavily on gas and diesel taxes, and some would argue it relies too much. With increasing CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) standards and the accelerating adoption rates for alternative fuel vehicles, current gas and diesel tax revenue streams are taking a hit. This is a national issue. State and federal gas taxes undergird the national investment in roads and bridges all across the country. There are efforts underway among individual states and multistate consortiums to seek new and more equitable ways to maintain the revenues to keep our road system viable. It’s a challenge. It’s arguably always been a challenge, so we have to keep working on it.  

 MG: What is KYTC’s budget for the coming biennium? How does that compare to recent budgets?  

 JG: The budget is up. When I came into this job it was roughly $2.7 billion. Today it is $3.4 billion, and on top of that our general fund contributions are $450 million this year. Two years ago, it was $250 million to incentivize the Brent Spence federal grant. The governor and the legislature, the general fund and their budgets have been generous in terms of supporting the cabinet’s mission. So overall we’re talking about a roughly $4 billion budget.  

 MG: Traffic forecasting is a crucial component of providing the proper highway infrastructure to Kentuckians. Is Kentucky on track to meet its needs?  

 JG: Let me just put it in context that our economy is growing and expanding at a record rate. Look at the almost weekly announcements of new jobs and new businesses locating here. I’ve never seen anything like it in my lifetime. Through the Highway Plan that lays out the goals for our road improvements and projects, we are on track to maintain our existing transportation infrastructure as well as expand it alongside the growth that we’re seeing in our communities, whether it’s residential or business growth.  

 One thing all my counterparts in other states are concerned about and focused on is increasing truck traffic. One of the ways this manifests itself on our interstates is in the need for more truck parking in our rest areas. Trucks are now lined up on the exit and the entry ramps. This is an issue being addressed almost universally across the country. A high percentage of that is commercial transportation; that’s where the main growth is. There’s growth across the board, and there’s demand for expanding.   

 I want to talk about work zone safety challenges. We had a tragic fatality just last week; a 22-year-old employee of the cabinet was killed in a work zone in LaRue County. Two children and one on the way. A tragic death like Blake Barnes’ illuminates the issue and causes us to reflect, to ask how we can improve what we do to encourage safety and especially with the driving public. There are too many people traveling too fast and driving distracted, and with more driving and more projects there’s more chance for tragedy to happen.  

 An effort from top to bottom in the industry and within KYTC has greatly improved workplace safety over the years. At the cabinet we have put a focus on employee safety. One of things we put an intentional lens on is improved employee safety. I’m proud to say it has permeated the culture here, and when we say it’s our first priority, we mean it.  

 MG: What growth or adoption curve do you foresee for EVs, hybrids or natural gas and hydrogen-powered vehicles? How does this impact KYTC operations?  

 JG: One of the responsibilities of the cabinet is to procure, install and manage the installation of electric-vehicle charging stations across the state. We broke ground and started construction on one and we are about to break ground on the second. Our program in phase one plans on building out 40 fast-charging stations.  

 The Transportation Cabinet is leading this effort through the Federal Highways Administration and through the U.S. Department of Transportation to deliver on the new vehicle charging stations across the state. They’re required at a minimum of every 50 miles on our interstates and parkways in phase one.   

 MG: Highways have gotten better and safer in recent years. What are the key elements of this? Is it design, materials, construction techniques and is further improvement on the way?  

 JG: Wearing a seat belt is your best defense. But construction methods have also improved greatly over the last 10 to 15 years. I can talk a lot about highway safety and where we are there, but I need to say, please slow down and stay aware of what you’re doing. Avoid distracted driving, and don’t text and drive. This is the single aspect of driver behavior that can easily undermine all the safety gains that we’ve made in the last 25 years. I say routinely, “Buckle up and phone down.”   

 Our vehicles are able to go faster, more quietly, almost painlessly, and that can be a problem. And the roads are better, too. We have all these improvements that allow us sometimes to travel faster. Some would say it’s a blessing, but some would say it’s a burden as well. Speed limits are there for a reason. We don’t just arbitrarily pick a number.   

 They are set to be the safest speed for work zones, for example. One of the most frustrating things for me is driving through a work zone and drivers are ignoring the slower speed limit in a work zone. That doesn’t just put our employees at risk, it puts the contractor’s employees at risk and it puts the drivers at risk because those work zones are often a constrained environment. The concrete barriers may be on one or both sides of the road where work is underway. Sometimes the lane widths are narrower. All this adds up to: There’s a reason that there’s a lower speed limit in a construction zone.  

 MG: What trends does the cabinet see in the accident statistics? Are there certain conditions that create more danger?  

 JG: Yes, we monitor our fatalities, and our records reflect whether they were wearing a seat belt or not. The majority of fatalities are when folks are not wearing seat belts. I get a daily report of incidents, crashes and fatalities on Kentucky roads, and I’ll tell you that that provides a real wake-up call.