Economy

Expensive road projects drive Clinton’s plan to lift coal country

Construction is under way on the Birmingham Northern Beltline near Palmerdale, Ala., on July 21, 2015. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has proposed to finish the controversial highway as part of a larger program to lift economically struggling communities. The 52-mile road is estimated to cost $5.4 billion.
Construction is under way on the Birmingham Northern Beltline near Palmerdale, Ala., on July 21, 2015. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has proposed to finish the controversial highway as part of a larger program to lift economically struggling communities. The 52-mile road is estimated to cost $5.4 billion. Black Warrior Riverkeeper

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s plan for helping economically depressed coal communities includes a proposal to finish a 50-year-old Appalachian highway system that many environmentalists oppose and would cost taxpayers billions of dollars.

As part of a $30 billion proposal announced Thursday, Clinton called for the completion of the 3,090-mile Appalachian Development Highway System, established in 1965 to improve roads in Appalachian states. About 300 miles remain unfinished, but they come with a staggering price tag: $11.4 billion, according to a 2012 estimate.

According to the Appalachian Regional Commission, the agency that manages the program, Congress had allocated $11.2 billion as of 2012 to build roughly 90 percent of the road system.

The Clinton campaign did not respond to questions about the proposal’s cost, economic benefit or environmental impact.

Prior to 2012, the federal government picked up 80 percent of the cost of building the Appalachian highway network and the states the remaining 20 percent. Since then, the federal government has paid 100 percent of the cost.

Her plan comes at a moment when Congress is struggling to find enough funding to build and maintain the country’s highway network for the next several years. Lawmakers last approved a long-term transportation bill in 2005 and have resorted to many short-term extensions of the program. The result has created an atmosphere of uncertainty for the states, which on average depend on the federal government for half their transportation budgets.

The House of Representatives and the Senate have until Nov. 20 to negotiate a new transportation bill. Both chambers approved legislation that would authorize six years of projects, but neither has been able to identify more than three years of funding.

Although the federal government and the states for decades have promoted the benefits of the Appalachian highway program, including economic development, reduced travel times and increased safety, the remaining unfinished stretches of the system have become very expensive to complete. State transportation departments have struggled to balance the need for new road construction with the maintenance of their existing networks.

Prior to 2012, the federal government picked up 80 percent of the cost of building the Appalachian highway network and the states the remaining 20 percent. Since then, the federal government has paid 100 percent of the cost.

Appalachian Development Highway System map September 2011 

The yet-to-be-built highways in the system would slice through some of the most environmentally sensitive mountain terrain in the eastern United States.

They would include construction of an 18-mile, four-lane road with a 2,870-foot tunnel in a rockslide-prone part of western North Carolina, pegged to cost $822 million.

In 2011, the North Carolina Department of Transportation conceded that “there are disagreements among the agencies (involved) about whether the project is really needed.”

The Birmingham Northern Beltline, a 52-mile interstate in Alabama, alone would cost $5.4 billion, according to a 2013 estimate. Construction on a 1.34-mile segment of the road is underway between two state highways northeast of Birmingham.

According to the Southern Environmental Law Center, the road would be the costliest in Alabama history. The group claims its promoters have inflated the economic impact of the road and that developers would reap most of the benefits.

Sarah Stokes, a staff attorney for the center, said the funding should be invested in “more cost-effective transportation upgrades” in coal communities in Alabama and elsewhere.

“We ought to be looking for modern investments and solutions that will help these communities while protecting our fiscal and natural resources,” she said.

Curtis Tate: 202-383-6018, @tatecurtis

Cost to complete Appalachian highways

Alabama: $3.25 billion

Georgia: $408 million

Kentucky: $812.4 million

Maryland: $289.6 million

Mississippi: $31 million

New York: $38.4 million

North Carolina: $823.2 million

Ohio: $459.7 million

Pennsylvania: $3.16 billion

Tennessee: $701.2 million

Virginia: $582.7 million

West Virginia: $830.2 million

Source: Appalachian Regional Commission

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