Finishing our commitment to Appalachia

I believe in advancing the cause of our nation’s highway systems, and in the immense economic and safety benefits that come with the improvement of surface transportation. While serving in the House of Representatives, I cast my vote in favor of establishing the Interstate Highway System back in 1958. But while the Interstate Highway System was slated to provide historic economic benefits to most of our nation, and opened up a new era of transportation and travel opportunities for our burgeoning population, the system was initially designed to bypass the Appalachian Region.  This was primarily due to the difficulties involved in building roads upon Appalachia’s beautiful but very rugged topography.

Forty-five years ago, in 1964, the Appalachian Regional Commission recognized the need for an upgraded transportation network throughout the 13 Appalachian states, and the concept of an Appalachian Development Highway System (ADHS) was born. This network of highways and road corridors was designed to provide easier access to and from communities in Appalachia.

Absent the Appalachian Development Highway System, my beloved state of West Virginia, as well as the whole of the Appalachian region, would have been left with a transportation infrastructure of dangerous, narrow, winding roads which follow the paths of river valleys and stream beds, winding around mountains and hills. The limited access to these regions stifled the economic opportunities for countless communities — a problem that can unfortunately still be seen all these years later.

And while the federal government has a responsibility to keep the promise made decades ago to the people of Appalachia, new benefits, benefits to the entire nation, have evolved. In a recent economic analysis conducted by the Appalachian Regional Commission, the study found that:

• Completion of the ADHS will result in a significant reduction in travel time for personal, business, and long-distance freight trips. By 2020, the aggregate savings in travel time is estimated to be over 67 million hours (240,000 hours daily of travel time saved), and grow to almost 180 million hours of reduced travel time by 2035; and

• ADHS corridor improvements will produce significant monetized travel benefits to individuals and businesses both within and outside the ARC region.

Total user benefits (travel time, fuel and non-fuel operating costs, and safety) are estimated to be $1.3 billion in 2020, the year of system completion, and grow to $4.3 billion by 2035. Over half that benefit is expected to accrue to business-related travel — commodity-based truck flows, local non-freight truck trips and on-the-clock auto trips.   

The rationale behind the completion of the Appalachian Development Highway System is no less important today than when it was envisioned in 1964.

The benefits of completion of the ADHS are twofold: We continue to make inroads into isolated communities, and we address and alleviate an already overly burdened Interstate Highway System. 

Unfortunately, there are still children in Appalachia who lack decent transportation routes to school. There are thousands upon thousands of people who cannot obtain sustainable, good-paying jobs because of poor road access to major employment centers. Some of the most beautiful places in the country are in Appalachia, but for tourism to thrive, Americans must be able to reach these beautiful destinations.

It is time for this Congress, in concert with the administration, to take the last great leap forward and complete the Appalachian Development Highway System. That is why I have introduced legislation to provide sufficient contract authority to complete the system. The completion of the system will provide additional economic opportunities and safer modes of travel, and will ease the strain on our current transportation infrastructure. Joining me in this endeavor are Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), Jim Webb (D-Va.), Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.), Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Richard Shelby (R-Ala.).

The legislation reauthorizes the ADHS for an additional five years, and it is my hope to have our bill included in the upcoming transportation reauthorization. The ADHS is currently authorized at 3,090 miles. By the end of fiscal 2008, 2,672 miles — approximately 86.5 percent of the miles authorized — were complete or under construction. 

I am as ardent as ever to see that the promise made by the federal government to the people of Appalachia is kept. The people of Appalachia have been waiting for this system for 45 years, which is far too long. Let’s finish it!

Byrd is a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.