Construction of a long-awaited four-lane southern bypass around Mayfield has begun in earnest, with construction equipment visible and traffic impacted on existing roads.

Dirt work on the Ky. 80 extension began in May. The project, slated for completion by Nov. 15, 2020, is 8% complete, according to Kentucky Transportation Cabinet Public Information Officer Keith Todd.

One of the first signs of its progress was the closure of Central Road on Aug. 7 as work began to elevate and improve drainage near where the extension of Ky. 80 will cross. Although originally expected to reopen around Aug. 14, the work is now expected to take until about Aug. 23.

"The contractor has encountered some material issues, and some of the utilities near this site were still active," Todd said.

The traffic impediment is one small sign the project is finally moving forward, however. The creation of a four-lane Ky. 80 in western Kentucky, from Bowling Green to Interstate-69 in Graves County, has been more than 17 years in the planning, according to a review of past publications. It was designed to provide a convenient southern route across western Kentucky and marketed as a way to cater to businesses with transportation needs, hopefully attracting more of them to the area.

Extending the highway will be the shortest route for traffic heading south on I-69 toward Memphis, Tennessee, from Bowling Green, Cadiz and Murray.

Kentucky 80 is the longest state highway crossing the state. Its western terminus is in Columbus, nearly to the Mississippi River in Hickman County. From there it travels across the southern part of the state to its eastern teriminus at the Breaks Interstate Park on the Virginia line in Pike County. From Aurora, just west of Kentucky Lake, to Edmonton, just east of Glasgow, Ky. 80 travels the same pavement as U.S. 68.

Construction on the Purchase Area's portion of Ky. 80 came under consideration in 2002, when state transportation officials announced a segment of a new road under construction from Aurora to Murray would be designated as Ky. 80 with the old highway connecting Aurora to Ky. 58 near Brewers renumbered as Ky. 402. This new segment of Ky. 80 was planned to continue to Mayfield, newspapers of the time showed.

The Aurora-to-Murray section was completed in October 2004. A ceremonial ground-breaking for the route between Murray and Mayfield was held in April 2005 with then-Gov. Ernie Fletcher in attendance, but by February of the next year the work still had not begun, and state Rep. Melvin Henley told a reporter the project was on hold due to lack of funding.

Eventually, Fletcher returned and once again had a ceremonial ground-breaking in July 2006. The stretch of road finally opened in late 2009. That left all but the final two miles of the route complete, from Ky. 303 at the junction with Ky. 121 at the east end to U.S. 45 at Ingersoll Rand Road at the west end, around Mayfield's south side.

It has stayed like that for a decade and was expected to stretch years longer. The most recent six-year highway plans state transportation officials released, in January 2018, planned construction in 2022 and 2023 after a series of delays.

Then, Rep. Richard Heath made completing the segment his highest legislative priority for the 2019-20 budget, and that apparently accelerated construction plans from years to months.

Heath told The Mayfield Messenger previously that he presented figures from Mayfield Grain, Pilgrim's Pride, Hutson Inc., Dairyman's Supply, Progress Rail and the West Kentucky Rural Electric warehouse to the budget review subcommittee's chair on transportation as part of his lobbying for the project's acceleration, stressing the economic impact.

"What I was able to do was get a truck count from those places I just mentioned and present that information to the Department of Transportation to back up why that was a priority for us to get that finished up, so as a result of that we got it in the 2019-20 budget," Heath said. "When you can back up your claims with documentation, that makes a difference."

He explained that without the bypass, those trucks have to go through downtown Mayfield, and it creates congestion and tears up the roads. Heath said the chairman asked him at the time if he knew the budget for roads was tight.

"He asked me and I said 'Yes sir, I know that,' but he said he needed to know what the priorities are for my district," Heath added. "I told him I had one very important priority and it's to finish that road, and I left it there. I didn't ask for a lot. I asked for that one project."

Heath was present when state transportation officials briefed the Graves County Fiscal Court on the project during its April 8 meeting.

Kyle Poat, chief district engineer for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet's District 1 office, said to expect construction to begin in mid-May.

"Optimistically speaking from a weather standpoint for this construction season and next, I think there's a very realistic goal that that section would be open by November of 2020," he said, "so you're looking at two construction seasons and that will have that final piece of final connectivity there, which will take you all the way from Bowling Green to, in essence, the Tennessee state line and beyond, really, the four-lane corridor.

"I know that will be a very key missing piece that has been needed here to finalize that connectivity, so we're glad to see that get going."

Keith Buckhout of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet's Office of Public Affairs in Frankfort, said the bidding process to construct the final two miles of the Ky. 80 bypass was opened to contractors in March. Jim Smith Contracting was awarded the bid for $14,152,537.21.

Todd said that although traffic detours along the construction corridor are a temporary inconvenience, the long-term benefits are worth it.

"It should take some truck traffic out of downtown Mayfield and maybe off the Ky. 121 bypass," he said.

More importantly, he said, it will better connect western Kentucky to its southern neighbors. Todd said, "They're thinking maybe with a better road connection now that you might start getting more people from the Memphis (Tennessee) area coming up to visit."

Graves County Economic Development President Ryan Drane isn't focused on the highway's past. Instead, he sees the road as a path for economic development well into the future.

"The completion of the Highway 80 bypass will come with many economic advantages for the city and county," Drane said, "from increased traffic flows between Murray and Paducah, to providing access to new parcels of land for future development. This is a huge win for our community."