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Kentucky lawmakers resume debate over reopening road in the heart of the state Capitol complex

Barriers block vehicles from a road between the Kentucky Capitol and the Capitol Annex on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024, in Frankfort, Ky. Kentucky lawmakers are considering a bill to reopen the stretch of road. (AP Photo/Bruce Schreiner)

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky lawmakers resumed their debate Wednesday over whether to reopen a road through the heart of the Bluegrass State's Capitol complex, seeking to balance safety and public access concerns.

The Senate Transportation Committee advanced a bill meant to resume vehicle traffic on the strip of road between the Kentucky Capitol and the Capitol Annex, where legislative offices and committee rooms are housed. The measure is the latest attempt to reopen the road.

That section of road — part of a loop around the scenic Capitol grounds — was closed in 2021 in response to security recommendations from state and federal authorities, Gov. Andy Beshear said at the time. The Democratic governor referred to the action as a preemptive step to improve security, but the decision has drawn pushback from several Republican lawmakers.

Republican Sen. John Schickel, who had a long career in law enforcement, said Wednesday that he takes security assessments "very seriously,” but disagreed with the decision to close the road.

“To unilaterally close a road that is so vital to the public and their understanding of how our state government works I think is a big mistake,” Schickel, the bill's lead sponsor, told the committee.

Before the road was closed, it was a popular place for people to gaze at the Capitol grounds — including a floral clock and rose garden — without getting out of their vehicles, Schickel said. The area between the Capitol and the annex is accessible to pedestrian traffic.

The bill to reopen the road heads to the full Senate, where nearly two dozen senators have signed on as cosponsors. It would still need House approval if the measure clears the Senate.

Kentucky State Police Commissioner Phillip Burnett Jr. defended the road closure to vehicles.

“We take this personally as an agency because the state police we are required to provide the safest environment we can for these grounds and for everyone here,” he told the Senate committee.

Burnett pointed to federal security reports that recommended closing the road between the Capitol and the annex. He spoke bluntly about the security risks from having that section of road open to vehicles, pointing to a pair of tragedies that shook the country as examples.

He cited the 1995 truck bomb that ripped through a federal building in downtown Oklahoma City and killed 168 people, and the 2017 violent clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, when a white supremacist rammed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one woman and injuring dozens.

Burnett noted the area between the Kentucky Capitol and the annex is a gathering place for protesters.

Schickel noted that his bill would allow authorities to temporarily close that section of road to traffic.

The bill advanced with support from Republican senators. The committee's two Democratic members opposed the measure. Democratic Sen. Karen Berg said when state and federal authorities "tell us this is a dangerous place to let trucks through and park, I’m going to believe them.”

In supporting the bill, Republican Sen. Robby Mills said that since the section of road was closed, vehicle traffic has increased through the annex parking lot, creating safety risks.

In another security step, security fencing was installed around the Governor’s Mansion after protesters gathered outside the mansion and hanged Beshear in effigy in a tree near the Capitol. The demonstration by armed protesters in the spring of 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, was fueled by coronavirus restrictions.

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The legislation is Senate Bill 75.