Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

January 23, 2014

A promise

Mountain Parkway upgrade has been needed many years

The Independent

ASHLAND — Gov. Steve Beshear has revealed a $753.6 million plan to widen and four-lane the Mountain Parkway from Interstate 64 near Winchester to four-lane U,S, 23 at Prestonsburg. That is something mountain legislators have been seeking for more than a half century.

One suspects the recent SOAR Conference of area leaders hosted in Pikeville by the governor and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, the Somerset Republican who is dean of Kentucky’s congressional delegation, helped renew interest in the long-delayed project.  

The project also may herald the return of tolls on the parkway for the first time in more than 25 years, when tolls were removed for highways throughout the state,

 The governor’s proposal — to be part of the state highway plan Beshear will present to lawmakers — calls for a series of construction projects by 2020 that would upgrade the entire parkway into a four-lane highway.

“This is certainly a significant amount of money that we’ll be spending,” Beshear said. “But it’s an amount of money that we need to spend, because it’s time to do this for eastern Kentucky.”

With the parkway’s connection to U.S. 23, the improved highway would create a four-lane corridor all the way from Interstate 64 near Winchester to Pikeville in the heart of Appalachia.

The proposal comes as eastern Kentucky is reeling from the loss of several thousand coal jobs. The downturn has spurred the region’s federal, state and local officials to look for answers to diversify an economy long dependent on coal production.

“Modernizing and extending the Mountain Parkway is a critical step in making eastern Kentucky a destination, while also increasing its competitiveness,” Beshear said.

The proposal requires legislative approval, but that should not be a problem considering the number of legislative leaders from the mountains. Indeed, it already has won praise from House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, and Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester. Both are from eastern Kentucky, and their districts would benefit from the road work. So would the 99th District where House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins of Sandy Hook resides.

Stumbo said the project would “create an economic lifeline to an area that needs it.”

Stivers called it an important first step in efforts to uplift the region’s economy, and vowed that the area’s lawmakers would see the parkway project through to its completion.

“Our words are not hollow and our actions will not be idle,” he said.

The 75.6-mile-long Mountain Parkway was built more than 50 years ago, but only the westernmost 45.8 miles from near Winchester to Campton are four lanes. The remaining section winding through Wolfe, Morgan and Magoffin counties is two lanes, with an occasional passing lane. It’s a good highway, but it would be much better and safer with two more lanes.

Beshear’s plan also would extend the parkway from Salyersville to Prestonsburg by expanding to four lanes another 16.2 miles of two connecting routes: U.S. 460 and Kentucky 114.

To pay for the work, Beshear said, he’ll propose using $595.6 million of state and federal highway funds over the next six years. Another $158 million would come from the sale of toll revenue bonds. Official anticipate using tolls to pay off the bonds. Beshear said it’s expected that tolls would be collected on the entire parkway, from near Winchester to Prestonsburg.

Although the Mountain Parkway is located many miles from northeast Kentucky, it’s opening more than 50 years ago had an immediate impact on our corner of Kentucky. Before the Mountain Parkway, residents of Paintsville, Prestonsburg and Pikeville  would travel U.S. 23 to Ashland to shop, but with the then-new parkway more and more of them started going to Lexington and even Louisville to shop. As a result our area has lost some of its once strong connections to the mountains of eastern Kentucky.

Such is the price of progress. Eastern Kentucky has benefited greatly from the Mountain Parkway. It will benefit even more with the improvements to the parkway promised by the governor.

One other thing: The state has promised to erect an interchange at the Mountain Parkway’s I-64 interchange that would allow westbound I-64 traffic direct access to the parkway. That is another improvement that has been needed for more than a half century.