FRANKFORT — Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo called Tuesday for a 140-mile extension of the Mountain Parkway from Prestonsburg to Beckley, W.Va., but it's unclear where the $8 billion to $10 billion needed to build it might be found.
Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said in a news release that the extension is needed to "unlock the potentials of our region's vibrant work force."
"It is time to enable our working men and women to reach their potential by creating a highway strategically placed to open up this valuable human resource," Stumbo wrote in a letter sent last Thursday to each member of the Kentucky and West Virginia congressional delegations and both states' governors.
He said the highway also would boost the region's tourism potential.
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In an interview, Stumbo said there is "no question that federal funds would be necessary for the expansion," but members of Kentucky's federal congressional delegation took a cautious tone Tuesday.
Robert Steurer, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Louisville, said McConnell is "an ardent supporter" of Kentucky's vital roads, but that "it's up to the governor and lawmakers in Frankfort to prioritize Kentucky's share of federal Highway Trust Fund dollars."
U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, said in an email that he applauded "Stumbo's vision and believe we must continue to improve our highway system, while also implementing other economic development efforts across Eastern Kentucky."
Rogers, of Somerset, said advancing the region's transportation system "is an important component to ultimately opening access to Eastern Kentucky."
"In fact, we need expansions and improvements on a number of federal highways winding throughout our region, from Harlan County to Martin County," Rogers said.
He noted that highway construction in the mountains is challenging and costly, including an ongoing 46-mile widening and extension of the Mountain Parkway, at a price of about $753 million. The road is being widened from Campton to Salyersville and extended to Prestonsburg.
Kentucky Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, in an email, said Stumbo "should be applauded for this big idea, which could help transform the region."
Beshear, in a nod to the state's tightly stretched road budget, said the proposal "most certainly would benefit from a public-private partnership," which would likely involve toll booths and require legislative approval.
"I'm sure the Speaker will be working on this idea in preparation for the 2016 session of the General Assembly," Beshear said.
Beshear said the Saving Our Appalachian Region initiative that he and Rogers set up has generated "many ideas, big and small, all with the intent of improving economic opportunities and the quality of life in Eastern Kentucky."
Stumbo credited the initiative with creating an atmosphere to consider his project proposal. Under the initiative, community leaders have been gathering ideas and developing plans to diversify the region's economy after a sharp downturn in the coal industry.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Republican U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins, whose district covers the southern third of West Virginia, did not reply to requests for comments on Stumbo's letter.
West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat, noted the importance of federal dollars for such a road project in a statement by his communications director, Chris Stadelman.
"Investing in our infrastructure is critical to supporting ongoing economic growth in the Appalachian region; however, these major projects are difficult without funding support from Congress," Stadelman said.
The extension would, in effect, provide a four-lane road from Paducah in Western Kentucky to I-64 at Beckley, W.Va., Stumbo said.
Eastern Kentucky has "three big problems," Stumbo said, identifying them as no navigable waterways, no four-year colleges and no major interstates.
"You can blame God for no navigable waterways, and you can blame state legislatures for no major universities but the federal government is to blame for no major interstates in the area," Stumbo said.
Stumbo noted that President Barack Obama has authorized spending $1 billion of coal reclamation funds for projects in the area.
"That would make a good down payment for this project," he said. "If I were a member of Congress, I would want to do something like this to help this area of the nation."
The project would change "the entire dynamics of the region," he said.
"Right now, people in this part of Eastern Kentucky can't go east," Stumbo said. "This extension would allow the flow of commerce to go more smoothly and quickly."
Not everyone likes Stumbo's idea.
Nina McCoy, a retired teacher in Martin County, said any money spent on the road project would be better used on other pressing needs, such as education funding and water and sewer improvements. "It's a gift to somebody building roads, the way I see it," McCoy said.
Stumbo said he realizes there will be critics who think money should be spent on other projects, but "I'm talking about a project that will benefit an entire region."
Stumbo's proposal is a different route than the proposed Coalfields Expressway project in West Virginia.
That would be a four-lane highway, about 62 miles long, stretching from Beckley to Pound, Va., which is about 18 miles from Jenkins, Ky.