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

July 28, 1991|By Thom Loverro | Thom Loverro,Western Maryland Bureau of The 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."

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