Whitesburg KY

U.S. 119 construction should be ‘fully underway’ within 2 years

Construction should be fully underway within two years on a $101 million project to reconstruct 9.6 miles of U.S. Route 119 in Letcher County.

That’s the message a state transportation official delivered to the U.S. 119 Pine Mountain Task Force at a meeting held here to discuss the status of the project to rebuild the road between Oven Fork and Partridge.

Kevin Damron, preconstruction branch manager for the Kentucky Department of Transportation’s District 12 office in Pikeville, told about 40 people who attended the meeting that bids for the construction will be let as soon as some right-of-way issues are settled and “comparable housing” units are located for several families who will be displaced by the roadwork, which will straighten and shorten the highway.

“If we had the right-of-way clear, we would be letting the project,” said Damron. “We can’t bid it until the housing is cleared. We hope to start in the fall. We have the funding now. Within two years, all 9.6 miles of U.S. 119 will be under construction.”

Damron also told the crowd that the proposed tunnel through Pine Mountain is still part of the overall project budget and is part of the state’s “Six Year Road Plan.” Damron said the budget for the tunnel alone is more than $100 million and when completed, the tunnel will be the second longest in the U.S. He said the tunnel will not only reduce congestion and make the entire road safer, it will also be a boon to tourism. Damron cautioned the audience on the survival of the Appalachian Regional Commission and without ARC funds, there will be no tunnel.

“The tunnel is tied to ARC,” said Damron. “The tunnel will live as long as ARC lives. ARC hangs by a thread.”

Damron said the big hold-up on letting bids on the Oven Fork to Partridge project is getting what is called comparable housing for displaced families. Comparable housing is not just housing which is comparable in cost but in size, location, and setting. He said for instance that if several extended family members are grouped together in one area in what are called “family clusters,” the law says every effort must be made to relocate them together. He also said the homeowners who are displaced are not under any obligation to relocate to the housing chosen as comparable and may just take a cash buyout for their homes and build or move wherever they like, but the effort for comparable housing must be made under federal law.

Jerry Pigman of the University of Kentucky’s Transportation Research Division presented task force members with statistics about safety on U.S. 119 collected since 2001, when Pine Mountain was closed to tractortrailers. Pigman said the road is actually safer now than it was during the time when trucks were banned.

He said the truck ban reduced traffic accidents by 48 percent, but wrecks are now 66 percent lower than before the truck ban was enacted. The truck ban started in March 2001 and ended in January 2005.

During the pre-ban years of 1995- 2000, the average number of crashes per year was 23.5, with 14.5 involving trucks. For the period since construction of the 7.7-mile section of U.S. 119 between Oven Fork and Whitesburg was finished in January 2005, the yearly accident average is 12, with one truck crash. Eight accidents occurred in 2006 alone, three of them involving trucks.

Keith Damron, Kevin Damron’s brother who also works with the Department of Transportation as planning branch manager for District 12, said the U.S. 119 project on Pine Mountain has won a number of awards for road safety, planning, construction, and engineering. He said much of the progress was because of the persistence and hard work of the members of task force, which was established in early 2001. Keith Damron also recalled that the relationship between the task force and the transportation department wasn’t always as cordial as it was during the May 15 meeting.

“We refer to one early meeting as the ‘public lynching,'” said Damron. “But let’s forget the past and move into the present. The Transportation Cabinet wants to move things forward.”

Kevin Damron told the audience he remembers the “public lynching” meeting well. It occurred in October 2000, when he and his brother and another coworker attended a meeting at Arlie Boggs School at Eolia that was called by citizens who were angered by an accident that killed a school bus driver. Kevin Damron said the crowd was large and hostile.

“We thought it was a ball game,” he said. “The only game in town was the three of us. We weren’t allowed to even use the word expense. It was an investment.”

The U.S. 119 Pine Mountain Task Force was created after that meeting. More than half of the members of the task force are community residents who had to apply to join. Other members include officials from the Kentucky Cabinet for Environmental and Public Protection, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Kentucky Division of Forestry, the Kentucky Heritage Council, the Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund, the Kentucky State Nature Preserves, the Sierra Club, and the Kentucky Nature Conservancy.

Several elected officials attended last week’s meeting – the first held since the segment of the road across Pine Mountain was dedicated in April 2005 – including 94th District State Representative Leslie Combs and Letcher County Judge/Executive Jim Ward. Also attending was Pat Wooten, who represents Fifth District U.S. Congressman Hal Rogers.

Combs said the road represents more than just safety and convenience, and is closely tied to the region’s future. She pledged to work on the state level to see the work completed.

“I’ve spoken to a lot of people who are concerned with the project,” said Combs. “They said to me, ‘We’ve had to struggle for everything and fight for everything we get and to keep what’s ours.’ The future is tied to access. I’m here to make this happen. I work for you.”

U.S. 119, a spur of U.S. Route 19, is a north-south highway that begins at U.S. 25E in Pineville and ends two miles south of DuBois, Penn. The road travels along the eastern border counties of Bell, Harlan, Letcher and Pike before exiting into West Virginia near South Williamson. The road is part of the Appalachian Development Highway System.

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