Interstate 68 comes to Western Maryland today, a development that could presage dramatic changes for the chronically depressed area. In short order, the valley towns of this Appalachian region could attract new industries, truck traffic and tourism. The interstate roadway, dubbed the National Freeway, holds vast potential as a crucible in which isolated Western Maryland becomes accessible to the East Coast's urban centers and the Ohio Valley's industrial heartland.
Lack of access has been a key reason for Western Maryland's steady descent into high unemployment and continuing despair. Industries have fled, truckers have avoided the steep, windy two-lane roads and tourists have looked elsewhere for vacations and recreation. Exacerbating the problem was a battle between the state and environmentalists over the last leg of I-68 that delayed completion more than a decade.
Now this 19-mile-long "missing link" is ready for traffic, making it possible for motorists to cut a half-hour off the Baltimore-Cumberland route and off the drive to Deep Creek Lake. Truckers will have a straight shot from the Port of Baltimore to the Ohio Valley without a time-consuming and costly detour north at Hancock to Breezewood and the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
Economic development officials are already trying to entice businesses into the region, using the interstate as a key selling point. Garrett County has set up a 43-acre industrial park next to the National Freeway; Allegany County officials could find companies more eager to take advantage of their area's skilled but jobless work force.
Experts believe traffic along the freeway could mushroom in the next 20 years. Much of that extra travel will be vacation and recreation trips. Deep Creek Lake is now as close to Baltimore, time-wise, as is Ocean City (and the jaunt from Washington is even shorter). Activities at Rocky Gap State Park, such as this weekend's music festival, could grow increasingly popular -- especially if a $48-million signature golf course and conference center are finally built. Vast scenic stretches of this mountainous region now are within easy reach of big-city and suburban motorists.
Interstate 68 offers Western Maryland hope and opportunity, two items that have been in short supply there recently. This direct, high-speed link brings the region closer to the rest of the state, making Western Maryland far more alluring to tourists and to businesses. It could well stimulate a renaissance, one that would transform Maryland's westernmost counties and give determined residents something they have only dreamed about in recent decades -- prosperity.