I read with interest Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo's call for the Mountain Parkway to be extended from Prestonsburg to Beckley, W. Va.
As a member of the Shaping Our Appalachian Region executive board, I applaud the emergence of ideas that have the prospect of moving Eastern Kentucky forward.
The major expansion which the speaker proposes would certainly do that. Unfortunately, it would move one part of the region further ahead while leaving more isolated, less developed parts even further behind.
I expect that some will immediately argue that I have fallen victim to a problem which has long plagued Eastern Kentucky — not recognizing that a rising tide lifts all boats and that any good accruing to any part of the region benefits the whole.
If my wanting to see at least one four-lane highway built in or through Harlan County in my lifetime paints me as provincial, then I plead guilty.
The building of major highways has been shown repeatedly to enhance a region's economic development. What the studies showing this correlation do not always make clear is development is not necessarily widespread. The greatest impact is within a few miles of the corridor. Will there be some benefit to outlying areas? Of course, but the major improvements will occur along the corridor and to the population centers that it connects.
I strongly support the major expansion of the Mountain Parkway now underway. But will these improvements be advantageous to once-thriving Harlan, which has seen its population plummet to just over 2,000? Will they help the struggling communities of Cumberland, Benham and Lynch as they desperately try to reinvent themselves following the disappearance of hundreds of coal-related jobs?
Or to the other communities in one of the commonwealth's only counties without a four-lane highway? I hope so, but I am not confident that would be the case. On the other hand, I am relatively certain that the county would reap immediate and long-lasting benefits with the rebuilding of U.S. 119 to Pineville.
Roads are to the development of our region like railroads were to the Old West. The communities that were connected by rail usually prospered; those that were not often fell on hard times. Many of them disappeared altogether.
I urge Stumbo and all our state's legislators to remember that there are parts of our region not nearly as well served by Frankfort as aothers. An examination of where road funds have been spent in the past 25 to 30 years will highlight the difference.