Western Md. thumbs for a ride to prosperity along Interstate 68

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ROCKY GAP -- The path through Western Maryland was once the road west, blazed by Gen. Edward Braddock during the French and Indian War and followed by Americans looking for prosperity in an untamed land.

But with prosperity came progress. And with progress came new roads that bypassed Western Maryland. Jobs left. People left. And Western Maryland was left isolated and depressed, a forgotten region.

Now, residents of these mountains are hoping that a new National Freeway, following the same path General Braddock blazed, will end that isolation and restore at least some of Western Maryland's past glory.

On Friday, what has been known as U.S. 48 -- the road running from Hancock, Md., to Morgantown, W.Va. -- will become Interstate 68, part of the very same federal highway system that helped bring about the isolation of Western Maryland.

The 19-mile stretch from Green Ridge to just east of Cumberland is the final leg in a road that was started 34 years ago. Since 1957, when the first segment over Martin Mountain was completed, Western Maryland has changed dramatically, from an industrial center rich with jobs and good lives to a community racked with high unemployment and low esteem.

The road, they hope, will change that.

"The opening of this road and the designation of Interstate 68 is probably the single most important event for Western Maryland in perhaps the last 30 or 40 years," said Delegate Casper R. Taylor, D-Allegany-Washington. "I think it's impossible to calculate how important, long-range, the highway is."

Western Maryland -- particularly Allegany County -- was hard hit when the interstate highway system took over in the late 1950s and 1960s as the primary transportation route in the nation.

The network bypassed most of Western Maryland, as Interstate 70 whizzed through Frederick and Washington counties, then headed north to the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It left Allegany and Garrett counties with a winding, difficult, partly two-lane, partly four-lane U.S. 40 as access in and out of the region.

The industrial giants that provided the area's employment base -- the Celanese Corp., Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co. and Kelly-Springfield Tire -- closed up shop, leaving thousands with no jobs and slim prospects for work otherwise.

Some people left -- Allegany County's population has dropped from 84,000 in 1970 to 75,000 in the latest census. Others tried to make do with lower-paying service jobs and salvage their lives a region that has suffered from double-digit unemployment for several years. The tough times have hit Western Maryland residents in their pocketbooks and in their spirits, as they have had little to celebrate.

The road, they hope, will change that.

"It's difficult to feel good about a community that is on a downhill slide," said Wayne Spiggle, a Cumberland physician and community activist. "I think Allegany Countians, the community at large, are basically looking forward to marching uphill for a little while."

Virgil Twigg, a Cumberland real estate agent, also cited the psychological boost the finished highway will give the area. "If nothing else, it has made an impact on attitudes, which may be more important than anything else, to look forward to the growth that has got to come," he said.

The good feelings are tied to visions of cash registers ringing and people coming home with paychecks instead of government subsidies.

Interstate 68 -- which will still retain its designation as the National Freeway and is also being dedicated to Maryland's Vietnam veterans -- is part of an economic development trifecta to revitalize the region. The other two components are prisons -- a federal and a state facility -- and the financially shaky Rocky Gap Golf Course and Conference Center. The prisons are still in the planning stages, and the conference center and golf course remain $2 million short of the $48 million necessary to finance a move forward.

Officials hope that the road will be a selling point to attract both tourists and industry, as traffic is expected to at least double and perhaps triple over the next 20 years.

"In our economic development efforts, we've never really been able to try to sell a company by saying, 'Hey, you can truck things in and out of here, we have the right kind of highways here,' you know, all the things that a company looks for," Allegany County Commissioner Adrienne L. Ottaviani said. "Now that we will have the interstate designation, it will be something we can use as a tool for businesses that might have been a little leery about coming before because of not having good access in and out of the county."

In neighboring Garrett County -- the westernmost county in the state -- officials already are investing in the road's future. The county is developing a 43-acre industrial park right next to the road. "The whole reason we are there is because of the interstate," Garrett County Commissioner John Braskey said. "We're pretty excited about it."

The economic impact of Interstate 68 will reach all the way to Baltimore, as the completed road opens up a new access to the Port of Baltimore from the Ohio Valley. "The road will enhance the position of the Baltimore port and give truckers direct access to the Ohio Valley," said Russ Ulrich, State Highway Administration spokesman.

Construction on the final part of the road -- often referred to as the "missing link" -- began in May 1987. The $182 million road construction project was divided into five sections, with four different contractors working to pave a new road through rugged terrain. Considering the landscape, the work went smoothly, said Wallace Beaulieu, the State Highway Administration engineer who supervised the project. "There was a lot of earth to move [14 million cubic yards], but it didn't present any overwhelming problems," he said.

One of the key components of the region's plan to rebuild economically is to attract tourists. Garrett County's Deep Creek Lake has been the primary pull for tourism in Western Maryland, but for the most part Western Maryland has not been in the consciousness of state residents as a tourist destination.

The road, they hope, will change that.

"I-68 makes all of Western Maryland much more accessible in convenience and time to people in the major metropolitan areas who traditionally have not regarded Western Maryland as a tourism designation," said Dean Kenderdine, assistant secretary for tourism and promotion in the state Department of Economic and Employment Development. "When this road opens it will become readily apparent to people that you can reach points in Western Maryland as quickly now as you can Ocean City."

The drive from the Baltimore area will be about two hours to Cumberland, another hour to Deep Creek Lake. And Mr. Beaulieu doesn't think it will be a boring ride. "This is a gorgeous area out here, and this interstate route will show that off dramatically to people," he said.

While enthusiasm about the road is running high among residents, investors along the newest interstate corridor have been cautiously interested. There hasn't been a flurry of land buying in eastern Allegany County along the final section of the new road. Most of the interest has been through options purchased on land, which gives the buyer the right to purchase the land at a later date under the terms of the agreement.

"There are some options out on some parcels of land by investors who are seeking financing," said Doug Macy of Macy Realty in Cumberland. "I don't think anything will happen terribly fast, it will be good and steady.

Not many people are thinking in terms of any down side of opening up Western Maryland. Fears of uncontrolled growth and the problems that accompany it are incomprehensible to people who have suffered the pains of being ignored. "I don't think we will see too much growth in my lifetime," Mrs. Ottaviani said.

"We're sitting here with 12 1/2 percent unemployment, no real major industries and a population that has a lot of senior citizens and retirees. So I think it is going to be quite a trip down the road before we yell uncle."

But the list of casualties has begun, with Mary Swan, a 34-year-old single mother of two who owns and operates Baltimore Pike Exxon.

Mrs. Swan's station is located on what used to be the main road -- U.S. 40 -- just east of Cumberland. Her gas station once pumped 100,000 gallons a day, $4,000 worth -- a thriving service station business.

The road changed that.

Now the station barely brings in $200 a day, she said, as the traffic that once passed by her station uses the new road.

"Those drivers don't even know Baltimore Pike Exxon exists," she said. In fact, the state changed the name of the road, from the Baltimore Pike to the Old National Pike -- Route 144 -- so now Baltimore Pike Exxon isn't even on Baltimore Pike anymore.

Mrs. Swan said she plans on closing the station next month. "I've been here for 15 years," she said.

"I had four employees I had to let go. I could sit here all day and not make money. I have to find a place to live, I live here, too.

"I don't understand why everyone thinks this is so great," she said. "It will just allow people to drive through here quicker. I don't think they will be stopping to spend any money."

But too many others feel they have been casualties of the inertia that has gripped the region and helped pull it into economic and psychological despair.

Something was needed to change that.

"I think honestly that our problems have become so chronic that the overwhelming attitude is that we desperately must change," Mr. Taylor said.

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