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Nearly 19 years later, many still dissatisfied with Man o' War

HERALD-LEADER STAFF WRITER

Man o' War Boulevard, which was completed and fully opened to traffic 19 years ago this December, is the road that Lexingtonians somehow never seemed able to love.

It was too narrow, too small and too slow, a pale imitation of New Circle Road, people said. There were too many stoplights. Finally, there were those big curbs, and no pull-off lanes, which made it impossible to push a stalled or wrecked vehicle out of the way of traffic. The complaints started almost as soon as the 16-mile road opened, and they never really went away. Nearly 20 years of booming growth along the Man o' War corridor hasn't helped.

"I think it's about time that someone realized that Man o' War is a debacle," said Virgil Post of Lexington.

Now, the Urban County Government expects to get a report within a few weeks outlining possible steps for easing congestion and improving safety along the key roadway.

Exactly what will be presented is unknown, but a draft report released last week offered several possibilities: more traffic lanes in some areas, converting some intersections with signals to roundabouts, and building a new Nicholasville Road-Man o' War interchange in which Nicholasville traffic would cross above Man o' War.

It's unclear whether any of those proposals will ever be carried out. But the draft report, particularly the mention of roundabouts, already is generating public comment and has put Man o' War firmly in the news.

Nick Stamatiadis, a civil engineering professor at the University of Kentucky, calls roundabouts an excellent idea. He said they reduce crashes and ensure that those that do occur are fender-benders.

Former Mayor Scotty Baesler, who was in office when most of Man o' War was built, says he agrees that the road needs work. But he argues that much of the criticism Man o' War has received is unfair or the result of misconceptions.

Despite what some might think Man o' War was not designed as a limited access freeway like New Circle and then scaled back because of budget constraints, he said. According to Baesler, Man o' War was intended from the beginning to be a city street with no interchanges, and the original design also lacked pull-off areas for stalled vehicles.

"We never planned it to have any overpasses," he said. "It would have been better to have some pull-off areas, but that wasn't the highest priority at the time. The priority was to get four lanes around Lexington and get traffic out of the subdivisions.

"People can talk about Man o' War now, but I'd hate to see the traffic we'd have on Tates Creek Road today if we hadn't built it. To me, Man o' War is one of the most significant things we did in the 1980s to benefit the entire community."

The road that would become Man o' War actually was listed on city plans in the 1930s, and was to be called Tiverton Way. The name was changed in 1974 to honor the famous race horse Man o' War, now buried at the Kentucky Horse Park.

The idea for the road was to tie together neighborhoods on the south side of Lexington, which already were growing rapidly, while providing residents there with quicker and easier access to Interstate 75 and north Lexington.

The first stretch of Man o' War, between Richmond Road and Palumbo Drive, opened in 1975. At first, the road had only two lanes. Construction of additional sections continued for 15 years.

The pace of construction was slow at first, but accelerated after 1983, when Gov. John Y. Brown's administration provided $18 million for the project. The final price tag was almost $50 million, with the city providing $10 million and the rest coming from the state. It was finished in 1978, four years ahead of schedule.

Several factors dictated the final form of Man o' War, according to David Uckotter, who was Lexington's engineering director when the road was being built.

Among other things, many new subdivisions were going up on the south side during construction of Man o' War, and the new road essentially had to be designed and built around them, Uckotter said.

According to Uckotter, that dictated a 120-foot right of way, which in turn left no room to include pull-off lanes for stalled vehicles. That rankled many motorists, since it meant there was no easy way around stalled or wrecked cars. Uckotter theorizes that might have helped to trigger the public's early unhappiness with the road.

"At the time it was being built, a lot of development already had occurred so that we were basically building road inside the new subdivisions," Uckotter said. "We had reserved the right of way. But there were subdivisions all over, so we couldn't have done much as far as making changes to the road without buying dozens if not hundreds of houses."

Uckotter said one factor that might have contributed to misconceptions about Man o' War was the plan for an "outer beltway" around south Lexington beyond Man o' War. It would have been similar to New Circle Road, running from I-75 to somewhere near Harrodsburg Road, hugging the Fayette-Jessamine County border, he said.

Plans for the outer beltway were dropped by the early 1980s -- a fact that has contributed to Man o' War's problems today, Uckotter contends.

"Man o' War was going to be a major arterial for the beltway," Uckotter said. "It probably would have cost $150 million to build a freeway where Man o' War is, because of the extra right of way and interchanges you would have needed. That was never part of the plan for Man o' War."

Dropping the planned outer beltway left Man o' War as the only circumferential road outside New Circle, which meant it had to carry much more traffic than originally envisioned, Uckotter said. All the development on Lexington's south side since 1988 has added to the problem, he said.

"Man o' War is carrying all the load," Uckotter said.

Tom Creasey, an engineer with Entran, the engineering firm preparing the new report on Man o' War, agreed.

"Essentially what you have is a road that was designed as a surface street that is now functioning as an outer beltway," Creasey said.

Baesler calls Man o' War a "compromise."

"We were on kind of a fast track, because you had a limited amount of money and you had to get it done while the money was available," Baesler said. "After the state provided the money, I doubt if any major road in Fayette County has been built as fast as that one was."

Baesler contends that Man o' War was adequate when it opened, but has become overloaded in recent years with increased development and more stoplights to slow traffic. He noted that many of those lights were added to accommodate residents in subdivisions along Man o' War who complained that they needed signals to be able to get out onto the road.

Additional signals probably helped spur more development, which accelerated the call for more traffic lights, he said.

"I don't think there's any question that, after almost 20 years, we need to take a look at the road," Baesler said. "You probably do need more lanes.

"But I would suggest that if you widened every lane all the way around, in five or 10 years you'll be looking at it again. We're a growing community, and we have this love affair with cars. Traffic will always be an issue."

More coverageStaff writer Dariush Shafa offers advice for driving on Man o' War. ON Kentucky.com Poll: What's Lexington's biggest traffic problem? Video: Travel the entire length of Man o' War Boulevard in 75 seconds.

Long-term complaint Nearly 19 years later, many still dissatisfied with Man o' War


Staff writer Dariush Shafa contributed to this report. Reach Jim Warren at (859) 231-3255, 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3255, or jwarren@herald-leader.com