Johnnie Ross, an environmental scientist with the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, described more than the periolous path of U.S. 119 when he told Pine Mountain Task Force members Thursday night that "it's been a difficult road."
Ross was referring to the many months of debates, financial finagling and red tape that's been involved in widening the dangerous stretch of highway that connects Harlan County to Whitesburg.
The task force's organizational meeting may have been heated, but Thursday's was a more amiable gathering of concerned mountaineers and committed engineers.
"I'm very proud to have worked on this project," Ross said. "The road we've traveled together has been tough, but progress is being made."
Progress is not only being made in the meeting halls, but on the mountain, too.
The $36 million spot improvement project, which is expected to be completed by October, is widening curves, cutting through mountain sides and filling steep gorges with acres of dirt blasted from the ridges of Pine Mountain. Originally blueprinted for a $14 million fix, the U.S. 119 project has, in recent months, received more money from the state.
Kevin Damron, reconstruction engineer with the Transportation Cabinet, said the increase in funds was due to Gov. Paul Patton's commitment to southeastern Kentucky.
"He's aware of the Pine Mountain Task Force and wants to help," Damron said.
Damron and Ross were among a panel that included engineers, contractors, tourism leaders, politicians and environmental experts, who updated Pine Mountain Task Force members, as well as other concerned residents, about the road reconstruction project. Convening at the Pine Mountain Grill in Whitesburg, the panel also presented maps and engaged in a question and answering session.
Despite a few complaints voiced during the meeting, most in attendance expressed gratitude for what the state and contracted engineers were accomplishing on the mountain. According to Margaret Collier, the highway improvements are worth the mud, blasting and heavy machinery they must deal with now.
"I just want to express my appreciation to you all," Collier told the panel. "I've driven over than mountain for 30 years, and there's been times I've cried because I was so scared."
Bright flood lights, traffic delays and night-time working hours were some of the problems brought to the panel's attention. Jay White, District 12 resident engineer, and Lester Wimpy, a representative of Bizzack Construction, promised to work with homeowners living near the massive construction site and to make as little disruption as possible.
"But, it's going to be a mess up there for a while," Damron said. "We're trying to finish this project in 10 months, rather than three years. We want to get there and get out as soon as possible, and hopefully, that will be a bandage on the situation right now. But it is reasonable to make some adaptations, even though this is a 24-hour-a-day process."
Fifteen minute delays can be expected on the mountain currently, and the road is closed between the hours of 9 a.m. and 2 p.m.
The most intense moment came when Partridge resident Vernon Maggard asked about progress being made on the proposed tunnel for U.S. 119. He expressed concern that the increase in funding for the spot improvements will replace any plans for a tunnel.
"Do you have any concrete information concerning what has been done about the tunnel," asked Maggard, who has been an outspoken advocate for tunnel construction.
He talked about the advantages a tunnel would have on the area's tourism industry.
Damron said the tunnel was still in the planning stages and, because the $180 million venture will be funded by federal money, a congressional sign-off must occur.
"There's talk that as soon as the reconstruction is over that's it," Maggard said.
"I don't believe that," Damron answered. "You need to keep the tunnel project alive."
Once the tunnel is completed, which could take eight to 10 years, Damron said the state will have spent $260 million on U.S. 119 improvements stretching from Whitesburg to the Harlan County line.