Another call for an expanded U.S. 119

Published 2:30 pm Friday, December 22, 2017

Beginning in grade school when I would pick up as many as five at Cas Walker’s after I got off my bus and walked home, reading newspapers has been a passion of mine. Even today, I prefer to have an actual newspaper in my hand rather than reading online.

While waiting to pay for my dinner at Pine Mountain Grill in Whitesburg recently, my eye caught a front page story from The Mountain Eagle about a U.S. 119 project. When I see anything about roads in eastern Kentucky, especially if the headline says something about U.S. 119 or U.S. 421, chances are I will stop to read and usually end up a little jealous and angry. I was both once again and now must make what seems like the 100th call for an expanded U.S. 119 between Harlan and Pineville.

As Ralph Souleyret, a longtime advocate for improved roads, said during a dedication of the Gayle Lawson Bridge on the new six-mile section of U.S. between Eolia and Oven Fork that the Pineville to Harlan part of the highway has been the most overlooked, which he said is more than a little ironic since the road started in Pineville.

For some reason that no one has ever explained, other than politics, U.S. 119 is now four lanes from Jenkins all the way to Charleston, W.Va. Souleyret gave credit to former West Virginia senator Robert Byrd for making sure the road was expanded in his state. I’m sure that former governor Paul Patton had something do with the expansion of U.S. 119 through Pike County, as well as several other new roads in the Pikeville area.

Christopher James, design supervisor, for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet’s District 12 office in Pikeville, was quoted in The Mountain Eagle story as he talked to Rotary Club members at Pine Mountain Grill.

James said the Whitesburg to Jenkins widening and improvement project will also be divided into five sections, a couple of which already have a four-lane road. Construction would begin on the first section, which would begin at Pine Mountain Junction and end at Ermine where a four-lane stretch currently exists.

State Senator Johnny Ray Turner and former Rep. Leslie Combs helped obtain $45.55 million in funding for that project last year with plans of securing an additional $92.2 million, according to the newspaper report.

Section three of the Jenkins to Whitesburg project would start at the end of the four-lane section of U.S. 119 at Mayking and end at Bill Moore Branch, where another stretch of fourlane highway already exists. Section Five would begin at Talman Drive and end at 119’s junction with U.S. 23. James pointed out that little construction would be needed on the sections that are already four-lane.

Green said it would probably take at least two years to finish the design work on the Whitesburg to Jenkins project.

As we conclude our update on U.S. 119 in Letcher County, I must report the section of U.S. 119 between Pineville and Harlan has changed very little in the 45-plus years I can remember traveling it, despite pleas and promises for improvements. It’s been discussed by me on these pages for well over 20 years and current Harlan County Judge-Executive Dan Mosley has made it one of his priorities going back years before he took over as the leader of county government.

If legislators can get credit for obtaining funding for improvements, as in The Mountain Eagle report above, I suppose it would make sense they get the blame when nothing is done.

We’re always told about how much it costs to build roads in the mountains as a reason for the lack of progress, but then I see cuts through massive mountains to build highways in Pike County and wonder why money was no problem there. We spend a lot of time talking about what we can do to improve our economy with the decrease in coal jobs, but it always occurs to me that it probably doesn’t matter if we don’t make it a little easier to get in and out of Harlan County.

Even if we’re just preaching to the choir, it seems there used to be more talk about improved roads. Maybe we’ve just given up. I was going over some of the proposed routes for a Harlan-to-Hazard project from about a decade ago with my former co-worker Mark Bell at the Enterprise Christmas dinner earlier in the week. My favorite option was a direct rout that would make it only 26.3 miles from Harlan to Hazard. I know that seems pretty unlikely when we can’t get the final couple of miles of U.S. 421 to the Virginia line finished, but if we’re not complaining and fighting for better roads, who will?

The Harlan County Fiscal Court made another request for a U.S. 119 expansion in Harlan and Bell counties several years back. I’m thinking it’s time they try again, and again next year and the years to follow.