Road network in Appalachia has created billions in benefits, study says

A largely federally funded highway network in Eastern Kentucky and other areas of Appalachia has created billions of dollars’ worth of benefits, according to a study released Thursday.

Economic activity associated with the Appalachian Development Highway System has helped create or support more than 168,000 jobs in the 13-state Appalachian region, with $7.3 billion in added income for workers in 2015, the study said.

The gross regional product in the region — the value of goods and services produced — was $11 billion higher in 2015 than it would have been in the absence of the highway system, the report said.

The wider, straighter roads create better access to jobs and health care, allow companies to move goods more easily and save 231 million hours of travel time annually, the study said.

“This study shows that the Appalachian Development Highway System continues to be the backbone for economic development across the Region,” Earl F. Gohl, federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission, said in a news release. “Each mile of the ADHS opens new opportunities across Appalachia.”

The ARC, which has been the conduit for funding to build the roads, commissioned the study.

It comes at a time when President Donald Trump has proposed eliminating the agency.

Trump’s proposed budget included $26.7 million for severance payments and other costs to shut down the agency.

Congress created the ARC in 1965 to try to boost economic development in Appalachia.

It’s not the first death threat the ARC has faced. The agency has proved hard to kill because of broad political support in Congress.

The agency covers all of West Virginia and parts of 12 other states from New York to Mississippi, including neary half of Kentucky’s counties.

Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers said in a recent news release that the House Appropriations Committee included $130 million for the ARC in a recent vote. The Senate also spurned Trump’s request, approving $142 million for the ARC.

One purpose of the study was to estimate the potential benefits of finishing the highway network.

At the end of 1965, 2,794 miles of the 3,090-mile system had been completed or were under construction, according to the ARC.

The study projected significant benefits in finishing the other 296 miles, including creation of an estimated 47,000 more jobs.

However, the costs would be high because many of the remaining sections are in areas where mountainous topography would make construction difficult or where there are environmental concerns.

The estimated cost to complete the system would be more than $11 billion, according to a 2012 study.

The price would be about as much as it has cost to build the entire network in place so far, though much of that work was done before 1983, when construction costs were lower.

Most of the designated highway system has been completed in Kentucky, with only a few miles of the 78-mile section from Middlesboro to Jenkins and some of the 16.5-mile section between Shelbiana and Elkhorn City remaining, according to the ARC.