Kentucky Threatens 17 Louisville Street Trees, Citing Safety [Updated]

The Kentucky Department of Transportation objects to street trees on this stroad. Image: Google Maps
The Kentucky Department of Transportation says trees make this road dangerous. Image: Google Maps

Here’s a classic story of traffic engineering myopia. Officials at the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet are threatening to remove 17 newly planted street trees in a Louisville suburb.

As reported by Next City and Louisville’s Courier-Journal, the trees had been selected and planted in part to ameliorate the area’s growing urban heat island problem. Louisville has lost 9 percent of its tree cover over roughly the last decade.

But Kentucky officials say the trees are a hazard to motorists along Brownsboro Road in Rolling Hills.

“We are not anti-tree at the Transportation Cabinet,” state highway engineer Matt Bullock told the Courier-Journal. “We are pro-safety.”

The state has given the city until Christmas to remove the trees. Local officials have accused the state of “selective enforcement” and even “harassment.”

Charles Marohn, the civil engineer who founded Strong Towns, said Kentucky is looking at the problem in the wrong way. “Street trees are dangerous,” he said, but only if “you have fast moving traffic.”

“They’re focused on the street trees and not the speed. Street trees are not a problem at reasonable speeds.”

Marohn calls Brownsboro a classic example of a “stroad,” a term he uses to describe roads built to highway standards that run through urban areas.

“The function of the roadway from the DOT standpoint is to move cars very quickly,” he said. “The other functions, to have capacity for economic development, to have people, to have businesses, those things are not compatible with fast-moving traffic.”

“So you have this problem where reasonable people doing reasonable things are at odds with this goal of fast moving traffic. The problem is not that people want street trees, the problem is that this really should not be a state highway, it’s a local street.”

Update: Kentucky Transportation Cabinet spokesperson Chuck Wolfe wrote in to say that the state’s hands are tied because “the encroachment permit application had to be handled in accordance with standards as they exist — not as they might be, were the roadway to be redesigned, which would take a lot of money and years.”

Correction: This post originally stated that the state of Kentucky had threatened to cut down the trees and bill the city. The post has been amended to reflect that the state says it will remove and replant the trees at no cost to the municipality. Additionally, the post originally identified the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet as the Kentucky DOT and has been updated with the correct agency name. 

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