Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers could not have provided a better sequel to last month's SOAR summit than their $100-million commitment to expand high-speed Internet.
The bipartisan plan is to build 7,000 miles of fiber with a mix of state bonds, federal and private money over the next few years. Broadband expansion is a smart down payment on a better future, not just for the mountains but also the rest of rural Kentucky which lags the state and nation in access to this essential economic tool. SOAR participants identified it as a key to the future.
Also encouraging, Beshear is asking the legislature to set aside $4 million in severance tax funds to create a regional strategic development fund for Eastern Kentucky, something that many mining states started decades ago.
Beshear also wants to set aside $400,000 in coal severance over the next biennium to coordinate SOAR (Shaping Our Appalachian Region) activities, including, says a release from his office, "staffing and related expenses associated with workgroup meetings, economic analysis, public hearings and other outreach efforts to continue widespread input gathering and plan implementation of regional strategies to improve the Appalachian region."
Given this sensible commitment to economic analysis and public input, Beshear's request for $754 million to finish four-laning the Mountain Parkway is a bit perplexing.
That's a huge amount of money, and while it might be the best use of transportation dollars in Eastern Kentucky, the proposal has not been vetted through any kind of broadly public process or analyzed for its potential economic impacts in comparison to other possible uses of transportation dollars.
The counties where the Mountain Parkway already is four lanes aren't exactly brimming with prosperity or jobs. Maybe it would make more sense to build and improve roads connecting mountain residents to Interstate 75 and its clusters of industry and business?
Road-fund dollars are derived from taxes on motorists and must be spent on transportation, which also includes sidewalks and trails. It's possible the new entrepreneurs who will be using expanded broadband to home-grow businesses would prefer nice places to walk and bike over shaving 10 minutes off the drive from Pikeville to Fayette Mall.
Others who know more about the region and its needs will have other ideas.
We understand that "finishing" the Mountain Parkway is an old political standard. House Speaker Greg Stumbo more or less presented it as a done deal at the Pikeville summit.
But isn't the whole point of SOAR to be smarter and more strategic than in the past and to start doing things differently and better?
If the Mountain Parkway project is the best use of transportation dollars, a comparative analysis and public vetting will confirm that.
Beshear's parkway expansion plan is so costly that it would require reinstating tolls. Such a big investment should be a model for the kind of accountable, strategic decision-making process that SOAR is supposed to foster. Why not get it right from the start?