- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 15, 2014

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - Gov. Steve Beshear revealed a $753.6 million plan Wednesday to widen and extend the Mountain Parkway, the main artery running through an Appalachian region suffering from the loss of coal jobs.

The proposal - to be part of the state highway plan Beshear will present to lawmakers - calls for a series of construction projects by 2020 that would upgrade the entire parkway into a four-lane highway. The parkway links the bluegrass region of central Kentucky to the coalfields of southeastern Kentucky.

“This is certainly a significant amount of money that we’ll be spending,” Beshear said. “But it’s an amount of money that we need to spend. Because it’s time to do this for eastern Kentucky.”

Tolls are expected to eventually be collected along the parkway to help finance the project, he said.

As part of the plan, the extended parkway would connect with the four-lane U.S. 23, creating a four-lane corridor all the way from Interstate 64 near Winchester to Pikeville in the heart of Applachia.

The proposal comes as eastern Kentucky is reeling from the loss of several thousand coal jobs. The coal industry and analysts point to several factors, including environmental regulations and a switch to natural gas.

The downturn has spurred the region’s federal, state and local officials to look for answers to diversify an economy long dependent on coal production.

“Modernizing and extending the Mountain Parkway is a critical step in making eastern Kentucky a destination, while also increasing its competitiveness,” Beshear said.

The proposal, which requires legislative approval, won praise from House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, and Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester. Both are from eastern Kentucky, and their districts would benefit from the road work.

Stumbo said the project would “create an economic lifeline to an area that needs it.”

Stivers called it an important first step in efforts to uplift the region’s economy, and vowed that the area’s lawmakers would see the parkway project through to its completion.

“Our words are not hollow and our actions will not be idle,” he said.

Beshear was joined by a bipartisan group of Appalachian lawmakers in making the announcement, which would fulfill a long-sought goal by residents of eastern Kentucky.

“For years, the people of the mountains have yearned for a modern, four-lane highway that would connect them to the rest of the commonwealth,” said Pike County Judge-Executive Wayne T. Rutherford.

He said the governor’s proposal would “take a sledgehammer” to a barrier his region has long felt, and said the economic impact from the project “cannot be overstated.”

The 75.6-mile-long Mountain Parkway was built more than 50 years ago, but only the westernmost 45.8 miles from near Winchester to Campton are four lanes. The remaining section winding through Wolfe, Morgan and Magoffin counties is two lanes, with an occasional passing lane.

Beshear’s plan would widen the section from Campton to Salyersville into four lanes.

It also would extend the parkway from Salyersville to Prestonsburg by expanding to four lanes another 16.2 miles of two connecting routes: U.S. 460 and Kentucky 114. At Prestonsburg, the longer parkway would connect with the four-lane U.S. 23, creating a four-lane corridor from Interstate 64 near Winchester to Pikeville.

To pay for the work, Beshear said, he’ll propose using $595.6 million of state and federal highway funds over the next six years. Another $158 million would come from the sale of toll revenue bonds.

Official anticipate using tolls to pay off the bonds. Beshear said it’s expected that tolls would be collected on the entire parkway, from near Winchester to Prestonsburg.

State officials haven’t yet devised a tolling plan that would include toll rates. The parkway started out as a toll road.

Authorization to issue the bonds and collect the tolls won’t be sought during the current legislative session, the governor said. The bonding and tolls won’t be needed until near the end of the project, he said.

Beshear said the parkway project won’t “eat up” funds for transportation projects elsewhere in Kentucky.

“This will fit in with other plans that we have to complete other projects, to start other projects all over this state,” he said.

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