FRANKFORT — Gov. Steve Beshear wants to commit $753 million over the next six years to widen the Mountain Parkway, the transportation backbone of Eastern Kentucky, to four lanes from Campton to Prestonsburg.
"It is a long-overdue project for which leaders in Eastern Kentucky have long advocated, to strengthen the region's ability to attract jobs and visitors," Beshear said Wednesday at a news conference, flanked by lawmakers from the region.
Beshear said his state highway plan, to be presented to the General Assembly next week, will recommend paying for the project with $595 million in state and federal highway funds and $158 million from the sale of toll revenue bonds.
That means the improved parkway would have tolls along its length, although Transportation Secretary Mike Hancock said he couldn't predict what the toll would be or for how long it would be charged. Despite high poverty levels in the region, Beshear said the toll would be a sum "that people will be able to handle pretty easily."
The parkway previously had tolls from the time it opened in 1963 under Gov. Bert T. Combs until the original construction bonds were paid off in 1985.
The parkway is a four-lane road for 46 miles, from Interstate 64 at Winchester to Campton. It's reduced to two lanes after that, with an occasional passing lane, ending 30 miles farther east in Salyersville.
Beshear's plan would widen the two-lane segment to four lanes and do the same for 16 miles of U.S. 460 and Ky. 114 around the Magoffin and Floyd county line, creating a new four-lane corridor from Salyersville to Prestonsburg that officially would become part of the parkway.
At Prestonsburg, the parkway would connect with U.S. 23, a four-lane highway to Pikeville at Kentucky's eastern tip.
Response was mixed in the Appalachian region on Wednesday.
Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg, said the area needs to develop "an economy for the 21st century" internally sustained by local entrepreneurs. Historically, highways were built in the mountains to get coal and people out faster, Davis said.
"You're not going to build an Eastern Kentucky economy by trying to shave 10 minutes off the time it takes us to drive to Lexington to shop," Davis said.
Communities in Eastern Kentucky that border four-lane highways, including parts of the Mountain Parkway, nonetheless are coping with high jobless and poverty rates, the Berea-based Mountain Association for Community Economic Development said in a statement.
"In today's economy, building four-lane roads does not guarantee the growth of the new economy that Eastern Kentucky needs," MACED said.
For example, in Wolfe County, which has a direct, four-lane link to Lexington, 41 percent of people live in poverty, and 65 percent of adults are not counted as part of the workforce, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
But local elected leaders praised the plan,
Pike County Judge-Executive Wayne T. Rutherford said a four-lane parkway "will take a sledgehammer to the 'Winchester Wall' " that separates the prosperous Bluegrass region of Central Kentucky from the struggling mountain counties of Eastern Kentucky.
In Magoffin County, where parkway expansion could begin by the end of this year, the county has purchased more than 200 acres of land next to the road with plans to develop it as an industrial site that could attract one or more factories, Judge-Executive Charles "Doc" Hardin said.
"Magoffin County will essentially be halfway between Lexington and Huntington (W.Va.), and that central location will greatly improve our economic outlook," Hardin said. "A four-lane highway is extremely necessary in today's economy. I am absolutely thrilled by what Governor Beshear is doing. He will go down in history right up there with Bert Combs because of this."
At the news conference Wednesday, Beshear acknowledged that spending $595 million in state and highway money over six years would be "a significant commitment" for the state's $1.6 billion-a-year road fund. "But it's money that we need to spend, because it's time," Beshear said.
The governor also lined up support for his plan from the Eastern Kentucky lawmakers standing with him, including House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, and Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, making it likely he'll get a sympathetic reception from the legislature.