Trump budget axes program that funds WV infrastructure projects

SAM OWENS | Gazette-Mail file photo
Earl Gohl (right), federal co-chairman of the Appalachian Regional Commission, came to Huntington last year to announce $38.8 million in grant funding for coalfield communities in West Virginia and elsewhere in Appalachia.

The Appalachian Regional Commission, one of 19 federal agencies proposed for elimination under a blueprint released Thursday for President Donald Trump’s budget, traces its roots to West Virginia in 1960, when John F. Kennedy campaigned through the state while seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.

But its presence in the Mountain State continues to this day. From October 2015 to January of this year, West Virginia received $24.1 million in ARC funding to support 55 projects across the state.

The largest portion of that funding — $13 million — went to create and support entrepreneurial and business strategies designed to strengthen and diversify the economy, while $5.5 went to critical infrastructure projects, like broadband development, transportation, and water and sewer projects.

About $4 million was invested in educational projects designed to provide a ready workforce and increase entrepreneurial skills, while $1.5 million went to promote community leadership.

The $24.1 million spent in West Virginia by the ARC last year was matched by $27.9 million from other federal agencies, state partners and private foundations, according to the ARC.

“The Appalachian Regional Commission helped West Virginia meet so many of its basic infrastructure needs that were taking so long to get built without their assistance,” said Anne Barth, who served as state director for U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a champion of the ARC, from 1992 to 2008. In 1971, Byrd led a successful Senate charge to push back from a plan by President Richard Nixon to eliminate the ARC in favor of addressing the region’s poverty through a block grant program.

“The ARC has opened up parts of our state that didn’t have modern highways with its Appalachian Corridor system that’s now almost finished,” Barth said. “One of the most exciting ARC projects now under way is its POWER Initiative, which started last year and is helping so many communities deal with the state’s transitioning economy.”

The POWER (Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce Revitalization) Initiative is helping to fund more than 20 projects across the state, including training and hiring 26 community health workers through a Marshall University program to serve high-risk patients in coal counties, a West Virginia University study on ways to develop markets for shale, a byproduct of coal mining, and a project based at the West Virginia Regional Technology Park in South Charleston on developing agricultural uses for reclaimed mine land.

“The ARC has played a key leadership role in bringing about positive change for West Virginia and Appalachia,” said Barth, now the executive director of TechConnect West Virginia. “It would be a shame to lose it.”

Since 1965, the ARC has channeled more than $9 billion to its member states to build out its 3,090-mile Appalachian Corridor highway system, a network of four-lane freeway-style segments that connect with existing interstate highways, to reduce the region’s isolation from the rest of the country and improve safety. The system is now nearly 90 percent complete, and includes more than 400 miles of superhighway in West Virginia. Appalachian Corridor H, the only remaining ARC highway in the state not completed, also is nearly 90 percent constructed or under contract, lacking a section linking Kerens, in Randolph County, with Davis, in Tucker County.

ARC, working with federal, state and private foundation partners, has channeled an additional $3 billion into the region for nonhighway infrastructure projects, such as sewer and water systems, health and social-improvement projects, and job-creation initiatives.

During the 1960 campaign, then-candidate Kennedy was moved by the widespread poverty he encountered in West Virginia. As president the following year, he supported a plan pitched to him by a newly formed Conference of Appalachian Governors, which sought a regional response by the federal government to address Appalachia’s vast economic challenges.

Kennedy assembled the President’s Appalachian Regional Commission in 1963 and charged it with drafting a comprehensive plan to spur economic development in the Appalachian region, which lagged far behind the nation as a whole, in terms of income, transportation, health care, housing and education. The recommendations produced by the panel led to legislation in 1965 creating the Appalachian Regional Commission, targeting all of West Virginia and parts of 12 other states in the Appalachian region with research, technical assistance and grants for projects designed to improve economic opportunity.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5169 or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.

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