Appalachian agency’s focus on road building distracts from community building

I read with interest the latest report of the Appalachian Regional Commission on its massive road-building program in Kentucky and 12 other states.

In the half century since the ARC was created by Congress in 1965, the agency has spent or committed $20 billion from its own and other funds toward completion of a 3,090-mile network of roads to serve Appalachia and connect to the interstate system.

The report said the agency already has spent $9 billion on the first 2,794 miles of roads and has committed $11 billion to complete the final 296 miles, an average of $6.6 million a mile.

By contrast, the agency committed miniscule amounts, some as little as $10,000 a year, to lower-priority projects such as forestry and tourism, clean air and water, job retraining and development, health, education, housing, etc.

Financially, the agency has come a long way, or maybe fallen is a better word. From 1965 to 1977, the ARC spent $15 billion on all its programs; the 2017 appropriation request is $125 million.

Over time, leadership of the ARC, largely local power structures operating through area development districts, chambers of commerce, bankers, coal magnates, etc., has clung to an overriding mantra, “Save Coal.”

Do you wonder who was served best by $20 billion worth of new roads: the coal industry, with its army of overweight trucks, or the family in a hollow whose jobs disappeared by the thousands as cheaper strip-mining techniques replaced deep mining?

The acerbic Tom Gish, late owner of the Mountain Eagle newspaper in Whitesburg, once said of the program: “The roads are what created (ARC’s) constituency. And I’m not sure what that’s done for people in the hollows.”

It is difficult to know the exact costs of the Appalachian road system since 1965, but various reports indicate the 2,794 miles already completed cost $9 billion. Costs for the remaining 296 miles now under contract or construction are estimated at between $11 billion and $16.6 billion (including inflation.) Operating and maintenance costs are estimated at an additional $12.2 billion.

As confusing as the numbers are, it is clear that roads have taken billions from the agency’s original goals, that of making life better for the depressed families of Appalachia.

I hope nothing here gives comfort to President Donald Trump’s threat to kill off the ARC and its health and education programs along with its road building.

Even Harry Caudill, persistent critic of the ARC whose work led to its creation, once acknowledged that the agency’s health- and clean-water projects had done more good than had the agency never existed in the first place.

It was publication of Caudill’s 1962 epic, “Night Comes to the Cumberlands,” that opened the world’s eyes (and the Kennedys’) to the plight of Appalachia, and Caudill is still thanked for his anger that got young Jack’s attention.

The ARC was established by Congress three years later. Other ARC programs, those not tied to saving coal, have worked: poverty rates have fallen from 31 percent in 1960 to 17 percent today; students now graduate at or near the national average; homes that do not depend on an outhouse with a moon cut in the door, so favored by cartoonists, now nears the national average (96.8 percent vs. 98 percent.)

I remember one time Caudill came up with two companies that needed funds for equipment to develop a shirt-sewing factory and a furniture factory. He could find no money for either venture. The mindset seemed to be, “If it does not save coal, why endorse it?”

For years, the Republican Party has blamed Barack Obama for killing off coal jobs in a “war on coal,” until Mitch McConnell finally acknowledged after Trump’s election that coal jobs are not coming back:

Not because of any war on coal but because of cheaper natural gas, the high cost of mining coal and the depletion of coal reserves, all of which Caudill saw coming.

Yes, Caudill had a constant battle with the power structure of Appalachia. But he never lost sight of his own big plans to recreate an entire sub-nation that would recognize coal was a dying industry and would build on its own valuable natural resources: forests and furniture making, natural beauty of the mountains, clean air and streams for sports and tourism, clean natural gas over coal, even sewing men’s shirts and suits for designers in New York and L.A.

In his book, the original development plan laid out by Caudill relegates the need for a highway program to a single paragraph in the last chapter. He simply thought bigger problems that would change the nature of Appalachian economics to deal directly with people’s day-to-day lives were more important.

Isn’t it time the ARC, local communities and chambers of commerce dump the “Save Coal” and “Friends of Coal” signs and replace them with “Save Our Forests,” “Come Climb Our Mountains,” “Fish in Clean Water Again?”

I am sure they would shine bright in neon — Neon, Ky., that is, a quiet hamlet of 840 souls in Letcher County surrounded by mountains waiting for people to climb.

Frank Ashley of Lexington, a former Courier-Journal reporter, served as press secretary for Govs. John Y. Brown and Brereton Jones. Reach him at famedia@aim.com.