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Appalachian Highways: Almost Home but a Long Way to Go

by Fred D. Baldwin

Steve Hardin is a regional construction supervisor with the West Virginia Division of Highways, where he's worked for 45 years.

"I remember where we came from, dirt roads and all," Hardin says. "It's been a challenge—moving dirt, going through mountains, and relocating rivers. But now there are things built that wouldn't have been possible without the highway. Back in 1972 there weren't 200 houses between Chapmanville [Logan County] and Danville [Boone County]. Now there's all kinds of development."

Hardin happens to be talking about U.S. Highway 119, which appears on Appalachian Regional Commission maps as Corridor G, connecting Charleston, West Virginia, to Pikeville, Kentucky. But his comments might well apply to any of the 26 corridors within the Appalachian Development Highway System (ADHS). Just under 2,300 miles (76 percent) of this system are now complete or under construction.

Finishing the entire system, all 3,025 miles of it, poses unavoidably severe technical and financial challenges. Nevertheless, despite (in Robert Frost's familiar phrase) "miles to go," the Region's leadership has also reaffirmed its sense of "promises to keep." Earlier this year, ARC Federal Co-Chairman Jesse L. White Jr. and all 13 Appalachian governors re-endorsed the importance of the ADHS and set a goal of 90 percent completion by the end of the next decade.

"Until communities and businesses have access to markets and resources, until workers are able to reasonably commute to jobs, and until patients can be within safe reach of doctors and medical care, the people of Appalachia will never have a full seat at the table of American prosperity," says ARC Federal Co-Chairman White. "The Appalachian highways are more than roads in the mountains—they are very much a lifeline."

"West Virginia has gained more than 76,000 jobs during the past eight years, thanks in large part to a modern highway system that includes several Appalachian highway corridors," says West Virginia Governor Gaston Caperton. "Numerous companies have cited our highway system as a significant factor in their decisions to locate in West Virginia. West Virginia remains committed to economic vitality, and the Appalachian highway system is a vital link to achieving it."

These endorsements and the eyewitness testimonies of old highway hands like Hardin are borne out by the comments of planners and developers along the route.

"Corridor G has enabled the city of Charleston to expand its core businesses out to about six miles," says Harry Mills, a vice president of the Business and Industrial Development Corporation (BIDCO), a nonprofit group that promotes economic growth in Kanawha and Putnam Counties. For example, Mills says, BIDCO has opened a new 360-acre business park on Corridor G. The park is adjacent to a new 500,000-square-foot shopping center.

Smaller, previously isolated communities further to the south have similar ideas.

"We're betting $30 million on the effects of this highway," says Jason Donahue, chief operating officer for Monterra Development Corporation, a for-profit subsidiary of a nonprofit corporation based in Logan, West Virginia. "We have several projects under way, the most significant of which is a regional shopping center. It's going to be 90 acres, literally carved out of a mountain. It's probably going to employ 1,200 to 1,300 people. And we're creating a 16-acre industrial park adjacent to an exit ramp."

"We have planned for and continue to look for growth up and down the corridor," says Joseph Raymond, the manager of the Logan branch of the Matewan National Bank. "We've already seen companies take more interest in the southern part of the state because of transportation. I think southern West Virginia has a lot to look forward to."

A body of research indicates that these expectations are realistic.

Corridors Bring Growth

Back in 1981, the most accurate count of industries located on or near the ADHS showed that, 15 years after the system was announced, 916 manufacturing plants with 50 or more employees had located along its corridors. These plants created 231,500 jobs.

Roughly a decade later, in 1993, a study by Tyrell Moore, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, found a strong correlation in Northern and Southern Appalachia between income growth and the presence of improved highways. The correlation was weaker in Central Appalachia, but still positive.

Finally, a study funded by the National Science Foundation and published in 1995 in the Journal of the American Planning Association compared ARC's counties with statistical "twin" counties outside the Region. The use of this kind of control group, matched with the ARC counties on 20 variables, controlled for growth that occurred in the absence of any ARC programs. The study, covering the 22-year period from 1969 to 1991, found that the 110 ARC counties with development highways grew 49 percentage points faster in earnings and 69 percentage points faster in income than their twins, while growing 6 percentage points faster in population.

Adding data through 1993, the study's authors found that the 62 rural Appalachian counties with developmental highways grew 80 percentage points faster in income than their rural twins and 62 percentage points faster in private sector earnings. The conclusion from these studies: "More jobs have been created and more economic growth has been stimulated in counties with Appalachian development highways than in counties without them."

The roots of the developmental highway program are as old as ARC itself. Appalachia: A Report by the President's Appalachian Regional Commission, 1964 ("the PARC report"), commissioned by President John F. Kennedy and submitted to President Lyndon B. Johnson, began by describing Appalachia as "a region apart." It recommended that design and corridor location of a developmental highway system should be ARC's "first order of business."

At that time, construction of the nation's Interstate Highway System was already well under way. For the most part, however, that system envisioned north-south traffic flowing around Appalachia's mountains like a river dividing around some rocky island. The Interstates opened Appalachia for east-west commerce along a few historic travel routes, such as where I-70/I-76 (the Pennsylvania turnpike route) crosses Pennsylvania to Pittsburgh and beyond, but mostly it skirted the Region. The authors of the PARC report concluded that something dramatically different was needed.

Isolation Discouraged Development

"Developmental activity in Appalachia," they wrote, "cannot proceed until the regional isolation has been overcome. Its cities and towns, its areas of natural wealth and its areas of recreation and industrial potential must be penetrated by a transportation network which provides access to and from the rest of the Nation and within the region itself."

The PARC report explicitly stated that the rationale for the proposed system was to be economic and human development, not traffic volume: "Instead of upgrading or expanding the most heavily traveled routes, a development system seeks to stimulate the flow of people and goods to and through remote areas which have a developmental potential; it seeks, in short, to create traffic and to open up areas where commerce and communication of people with people have been sorely inhibited by lack of ready access."

The PARC report estimated that the proposed highway system would require 2,189 miles of highways built to high standards, plus some 500 miles of local access roads. It estimated the total cost at $1.2 billion.

Congress responded to the PARC report with the creation of ARC and authorization of the ADHS. To create an incentive to put state dollars into low-traffic areas, federal funding for both ARC and Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) programs along the corridors was set at 70 percent for most kinds of work (later raised to 80 percent), compared with 50 percent for other highway programs.

Several criteria were used in locating corridors: connecting existing economic centers to relatively nearby interstate highways, closing gaps between major markets on either side of Appalachia (such as Baltimore and Cincinnati), opening up areas for recreational development (such as the Blue Ridge-Smoky Mountains), and opening up commuter routes between genuinely isolated areas of the Region and job centers in and near Appalachia.

These objectives governed the expansion of the ADHS into today's system of 26 corridors, designated by letters, including A1 and B1. Corridor X in Alabama was the last corridor to be added (in 1978). Since 1965 about $4.4 billion, roughly two-thirds of ARC's total appropriations, has gone toward highway construction. As noted earlier, the corridors now have a total length of 3,025 miles authorized to be improved. Of the 3,025 authorized miles, 2,298 miles are either complete or under construction.

"The rationale behind the ARC highways is no less sound today than it was in 1964," says Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia. "These highways need and deserve a focused and comprehensive effort at the federal level to expedite their completion. For that reason, I've introduced a bill to ensure that sufficient funding would be set aside in the next major highway bill to complete the ARC corridors by the year 2003."

Some of the most difficult challenges lie ahead. Based on data supplied by the states, the total cost of completing the remaining miles of the ADHS is estimated at between $6.9 billion and $8.6 billion, well above the cost of the first 76 percent.

Some cost increases are simply due to inflation over the past 30 years, of course. The Consumer Price Index (CPI) pegs a 1995 dollar at 20 cents compared with the purchasing power of a dollar in 1964, the year the PARC report appeared. More important than general price inflation, however, are two other factors specific to highway construction. First, the ADHS highways are built to increasingly demanding standards, referring both to technical specifications for the roads themselves and to the regulatory context of the construction process. Second, less expensive corridor segments are generally completed ahead of more expensive ones—a justifiable pattern, but one that results in many of the costliest miles being left for last.

Technology Boosts Safety

Changes in technology have made highways far safer than they used to be. A few changes, like substitution of pre-stressed concrete for steel in bridge girders, have also made construction cheaper. More commonly, safety measures like wider clearances add to costs. In any event, technology-related cost increases are minor compared with process-related factors, especially increased attention to environmental impact.

Consider the whole process of building a highway, from the initial decision to proceed right down to a ribbon-cutting. How long does it take? Highway engineers say, as a rule of thumb, about 13 years.

Here's a summary of a hypothetical but fairly typical timetable, as it might appear in rough notes for a highway planner's charts.

Years 1, 2, and 3: This is the "corridor location" phase, when very general questions are decided, such as, "On which side of the mountain should we build?" Highway planners recommend routes or suggest options based on topographic surveys and community needs. They hold public meetings and hearings all along a proposed route.

The state makes a tentative "preferred choice" among alternative routes. The planners produce a draft environmental impact statement (EIS), the first of many.

Years 4 and 5: Planners call this the "preliminary design and location" phase. Bob Duis, former senior advisor to ARC on the highway program and now a consultant, says: "You're down at the 200-feet-to-the-inch scale. At that scale on your maps you can see what streams you're crossing, and maybe where you'll need noise walls. You'll try to miss churches and cemeteries." Location hearings are held and the draft EIS is circulated for comment among many agencies.

Years 6, 7, and 8: Final decisions are made among specific alternatives. With most of the political and legal work done, the detailed engineering work can begin.

Years 9 and 10: This is the "design phase." The process of land acquisition gets underway. Meanwhile, state engineers divide 20-mile and 30-mile stretches of proposed highway into manageable chunks of work. "For example," says Duis, "in the Appalachian Region one section will have a lot of cuts, the next one a lot of fills. You try to do these at the same time so that the dirt and rock from the cut can go into the fill."

When you've finished acquiring all your rights-of-way, and making the necessary arrangements with utilities and railroads, you're ready to prepare the "PS&E" (plans, specifications, and estimates). The plans and specifications will be used by contractors in bidding; the estimates are kept confidential for use in evaluating bids. Then you advertise for bids, evaluate them, and award contracts.

Years 11, 12, and 13: Contractors build the road. This means clearing right-of-way, building bridges and culverts, laying down a base and pavement, and, finally, adding hardware like fences, guardrails, and signs. How long all this takes is largely a function of terrain, especially the number of streams involved. Even after a segment has been completed, its opening may be delayed until adjoining segments can be finished. "You don't," Duis explains dryly, "want people driving 70 miles per hour into a cornfield."

Weighing the Costs and Benefits

For obvious reasons, it's usually more cost-effective to finish long, relatively less mountainous stretches first. Communities located near especially challenging terrain face in microcosm the same problem that all Appalachia faces: extremely high costs per mile coupled with relatively low traffic volumes. Other communities can often make more persuasive claims for scarce resources, whether the context is a benefit/cost analysis or the number of voters that will be served.

It needs to be added, however, that the expansion of the ADHS has been marked by many exceptions to the "most expensive last" rule of thumb. In numerous instances, decision makers have been willing to commit major resources to eliminating bottlenecks that had previously created special problems.

For example, consider the "Pikeville Cut" on Corridor B, which eliminated a long loop of U.S. 23 that bent like a knot's bight around Pikeville, Kentucky. The project required cutting a passage through a mountain to permit relocating the main line of the C&O Railroad, rechanneling a fork of the Big Sandy River, and constructing the highway through the cut. The payoff wasn't merely paring two miles from Corridor B; it included flood control, health and safety benefits to Pikeville (by distancing coal truck traffic from downtown and eliminating eight grade-level railroad crossings in town), and, as a bonus, the addition of over 150 acres of developable land in the filled-in areas.

Moving mountains can sometimes be easier than moving political jurisdictions, but Corridor B has also provided striking examples of both bipartisan and interstate cooperation. Citizen groups in both Tennessee and North Carolina have pushed hard for completion of the mountainous stretch of highway connecting Johnson City and Asheville. In the mid 1980s they scored a coup by persuading the two states to petition the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to add their segments of Corridor B to the Interstate system, which is permitted by law for ADHS highways that meet interstate standards. As a Johnson City transportation planner put it at the time, "If something looks like a duck and walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it should be a duck." The FHWA agreed and what was once U.S. 23 will become U.S. 23 and I-26 when construction is complete.

Another instance of interstate cooperation occurred on Corridor G near Williamson, West Virginia, where the last West Virginia section of that corridor is scheduled to open for traffic late this year. Four bridges were built over the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River, carrying Corridor G in and out of Kentucky twice before it continues on toward Pikeville. This back-and-forth route will minimize the improved highway's impact on a housing project on the Kentucky side of the river.

Ask people along any of these highways if it's important to complete their whole corridor, or connecting corridors, and you first get a puzzled silence—the kind that occurs when people have to explain something they think should be obvious. Ask often, and you come to expect something like Abraham Lincoln's answer to a question about how long a man's legs should be: "Long enough to reach the ground." People say that the essence of development is access to distant markets, not just the next town down the road. Bottlenecks anywhere in the system impede that access.

Access Attracts People

"You can't point to just one road," Harry Mills says, explaining the remarkable growth of business and industry in the Charleston area. "It's the whole system of highways. The whole system has made our area accessible, and this accessibility attracts people."

Eldon Leslie, who is president of the Cookeville (Tennessee) Area-Putnam County Chamber of Commerce, yields to no one in his enthusiasm for Corridor J: "I deem that there are more than 19,000 manufacturing jobs located directly on the corridor—not just off it, and not a mile or two or three, but projects visible from the corridor in Clay, Jackson, Putnam, White, and Van Buren Counties—in these fairly poor Appalachian counties.

"The reason," he says, "for completing the whole network is what I call the 'multiple factor.' We talk about the transportation matrix—that's air, water, and rail, too. We've brought back a significant rail project here. It was completely down. Now the Nashville and Eastern Railroad Authority operates a very profitable line for four counties, and part of the success of that railroad is born out of Corridor J.

"We've got what we call a 'war map' here," Leslie continues. "It's got parts of four states on it. We try to understand how we affect the whole and how the whole affects us. People who want a second plant site and maybe want to be under the umbrella of Plant Number One don't want to be far away. They like to do everything on a one-hour time line. We run into this often. I stand amazed at the new manufacturing construction north of here in Clinton County and Wayne County, Kentucky. Regionally, this highway has brought us together."

Listen long enough, and the recitation of benefits lengthens. In addition to new plants, expansion, and tourism, people mention safety, the ability to commute to jobs over a larger area, and improved access to social services.

"This highway allows us to have accessibility to quality health care and education," Jason Donahue says, speaking of Corridor G in southern West Virginia. "Logan has one of three regional hospitals. The others are at Man [southern Logan County] and Williamson [Mingo County]. Instead of two hours to receive emergency care, you can do it in 30 minutes now.

"Southern West Virginia Community College has four campuses," Donahue continues. "Instead of commuting two hours to take classes, you can now usually do it in 15 minutes. The colleges are linked [by telecommunications] to each other and to other institutions, so we're connected to the world. But the road still does the meat-and-potatoes part of getting you there to take advantage of it."

Comments like this are affirmations of what ARC's first report to Congress called "investment on the other side of the coin . . . a highway program to create traffic—not a traffic count to create highways." Development is linked to a wide range of factors, but access to markets and other resources is basic.

That's a vision that has been amply justified by events. To echo another Frost poem, investment in roads "less traveled by" has already "made all the difference" in the lives of the people they've connected to the world outside the Region and to each other. The miles to go will be difficult. But the people facing that challenge are already accustomed to moving mountains.

Fred D. Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.