Study: Finished Highway System a Boon for Appalachia

Thu July 03, 2008 - Northeast Edition
CEG




RICHMOND, Va. (AP) The hills of Appalachia, one of the country’s most poverty-stricken regions, could provide tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars once a nearly finished highway system is complete, according to a study released June 5.

Finishing the more than 3,570-mi. (5,745 km) Appalachian Development Highway System created more than four decades ago will enhance competitiveness, improve travel times and help link the 13-state region that includes southern and eastern Ohio to a global trade network, according to the study by the Appalachian Regional Commission.

“You can see the economic benefit; that it is a wise investment for both Appalachia and the rest of the country,” said Anne Pope, co-chairman of the ARC, a federal-state partnership that works to create opportunities for economic development and quality of life improvement in the region that stretches from southern New York to northeast Mississippi.

About 85 percent of the system authorized by Congress in 1965 is complete, but some of the most isolated and destitute areas lie within the 434 mi. (698 km) to be completed, and the ARC is depending on federal money to finish the project.

“A number of these miles have to be built in some of the most difficult terrain there is in Appalachia,” Pope said. “But we can’t stop now after all the investments we’ve already made.”

The study estimates the cost of completing the system at $11.2 billion to $16.6 billion. But it places national return at $3 for every $1 invested in the system.

In Ohio, 178 mi. (286 km) of the 201 mi. (323 km) in the system are finished, said Jerry Workman, the Appalachian system highway manager of the Ohio Department of Transportation.

The biggest section left to be done is the 17-mi. (27 km) Portsmouth bypass that will go from U.S. 23 near Lucasville to U.S. 52, Workman said. The other two projects are proposals for bypasses for Waverly and Ashville-South Bloomfield on U.S. 23, he said.

Workman said the estimated cost for the Portsmouth bypass is at least $600 million, but the state gets only $20 million a year from the commission for highway work. He said the state would like to see work on the project, designed to reduce congestion and truck traffic in the Portsmouth area, begin in 2010.

According to the study, completing the system is expected to create 80,500 jobs and more than $5 billion in increased economic activity, including $3.2 billion in wages by 2035. National savings in travel time, operating costs and increased safety are also estimated to grow to more than $5.1 billion by 2035.

The system will allow approximately 57 percent of the counties in the region to see travel time reductions to the nearest commercial airport, the study’s authors said. About 80 percent of the counties are expected to increase accessibility to buyer and supplier markets within a three-hour drive.

The research takes into account economic changes and rising costs, said Dan Hodge, principal author of the study done by Cambridge Systematics Inc., Economic Development Research Group and HDR Decision Economics.

“No matter how we look at it, completing the system shows a return on investment for both the region and the country as a whole,” Hodge said.

The study also looked at specific areas as case studies, including a stretch of road from Interstate 79 near Weston, W.Va., to Interstate 81 in Strasburg, Va. Portions of the road have been completed, while other parts — mostly mountainous two-lane highways — are unfinished and limit the “attractiveness of this route for freight and passenger travel,” the study said.

Among those affected by the completion of this part of the system is the Canaan Valley Resort, a four-season resort in Tucker County, W.Va., situated in the Allegheny Mountains.

“The most difficult part about getting to this most beautiful place is the access from the roads,” said Troy Cardwell, the resort’s general manager. “With the access, it just puts more of our folks to work and keeps them working more on a consistent basis throughout the year.”

Cardwell estimates that year-round average occupancy will go from about 60 percent up to between 70 and 80 percent at the resort three hours from Pittsburgh and Washington.

The benefits of completing the system also go beyond economic ones, said Robert Byrd, the West Virginia Democrat who has supported the project through his tenure as the longest-serving U.S. senator in history.

“Unfortunately, there are still children in Appalachia who lack decent transportation routes to school; and there are still pregnant mothers, elderly citizens and others who lack timely road access to area hospitals,” Byrd, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said by e-mail.