Subways, according to the gospel of Francis A. Kenney, are like pyramids: they cost a lot of money, employ a lot of people and "serve no useful purpose."

Kenney has a special reason for hating subways, the one in Washington and the one that's being built in Baltimore. They are killing his road.

Identified by a plaque that hangs proudly in his basement as "Mr. National Freeway," Kenney is the originator and keeper of a dream that keeps getting postponed.

The superhighway he has pushed with a passion for two decades would, the plaque says, provide "a through route for the Baltimore-Washington area to Cincinnati, giving the Midwest the shortest possible route to a seaport and at the same time, [put] Cumberland back on the main road."

From Hancock, Md. on the east of Morgantown, W.Va., on the west, the highway hewn with federal funds and state monies is completed or soon to be -- except for an 18-mile stretch of steep grades and sharp curves through the mountains east of Cumberland.

Fleetingly, last month, the outlook for finishing the highway looked better than it had for years. After a decade of debates over routes and rights-of-way, over historic homes and virgin forests, U.S. Transportation Secretary Neil Goldschmidt speedily approved a final environment impact statement.

It was, Francis Kenney soon learned, too good to be true.

Maryland legislators had agreed months ago to raise the state's capital and operating contributions to both city subways. Anticipated higher fuel tax revenues -- enough for both highways and subways, it was said -- proved illusory. Gasoline tax collections are down 10 percent and transportation transfer and titling fees are off a third.

The other bad news for the freeway lobby was inflation: in just one year, the price tag on the last leg had risen from $156 million to $196 million. "In highway work, inflation is substantially greater than in the normal economy," explained T. Wallace Beaulieu, the state's engineer here, while the radio played, "Take me back to yesterday once more."

Construction of the final segment was to begin in 1984. Now, without additional money, according to state highway administrator M. Slade Caltrider, the date is "open-ended."

On a political swing through Cumberland last week, Gov. Harry Hughes told Democrats assembled at Del. Casper Taylor's tavern-restaurant he is still committed to the highway's completion. To accomplish this, he said he will ask the legislature in January to hike gasoline taxes "or something."

They've heard it all before, the promise of roads to come. "Tomorrow's Roads Today . . . A MODERN ROUTE 40 in Western Maryland by 1965," said the sign posted on Martin's Mountain when J. Millard Tawes was governor and removed when inaction made the date obsolete.

Once, the quid pro quo was the second span over the Chesapeake Bay. In return for their votes, Western Marylanders were promised the road. In 1977, State Sen. Edward Mason (R-Alegany), said, he was told "if I didn't vote for a sales tax, we wouldn't get the National Freeway. It passed by one vote -- not mine."

Years ago, the candidates for governor all committed themselves to the freeway, which is also championed by the City of Baltimore although not at the expense of its subway. Once again, the cynics here say, reality has prevailed over rhetoric, and Allegany County faces yet another autumn with its leaves aflame and its highway unfinished.

"Of course, Hancock represents the western limits of Maryland's concern," said Kenney. "We're really not accepted by the state. People even misspell our county's name."

The struggle for the road west is as old as the country. "America's Gateway" is how the brochures describe Cumberland, and it was once just that. gThe National Road carried the settlers west even as it brought the wealth of the hinterlands back east. It was the first federally financed highway and it joined at Hancock with a privately built pike at Baltimore.

A century later, the route was renamed U.S. 40, and other ways and means of getting goods and people to and from America's frontiers and markets had turned this region of ridges and valleys into an economic backwater.

First, the railroads defined new trade routes. Then, other highways of commerce rose to prominence. Foremost among these roads was the Pennsylvania Turnpike, a highway that assured prosperity for the port of Philadelphia even as it diminished Baltimore's share of the wealth.

The only thing Francis Kenney hates more than the subway is Pennsylvania.

"Pennsylvania has tried to put itself in the prominent position by calling itself the Keystone State," said Kenney. It really isn't. It doesn't have the central features it boasts of."

Kenney, as chairman of the Cumberland Chamber of Commerce transportation committee, tangled with the Pennsylvanians first over an earlier effort to bring U.S. 40 -- which rambles northwesterly from Cumberland into the adjoining state -- up to interstate standards. Pennsylvania instead pushed Interstate 70 north from Hancock to connect with its own turnpike at Breezewood.

When President Kennedy first proposed a north-south superhighway through Appalachia -- later to become Interstate 79 -- Kenney saw another opportunity. He led a delegation to Morgantown, W. Va. to persuade its power structure a through road to the nation's capital that would connect with I-79 was in their interest.

West Virginia bought his argument and completed its portion of the National Freeway (also known as U.S. 48) by 1975. Kenney, then winding up his civil service career as director of state unemployment benefits in Baltimore, made a special trip back for the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Federal funding for Appalachian roads came in 1965, and the National Freeway was officially designated "Corridor E." The highway engineers went to work drawing lines through what they considered the path of least resistance. Several miles south of U.S. 40, the chosen route cut through portions of the Green Ridge State Forest. Environmentalists in and out of government howled. The highway builders retreated to a middle route. Residents rebelled, citing the historic nature of their homes and valley.

Promising to preserve as much of the pristine panorama as possible, the state finally returned to the original route -- at double the original cost.

The Chamber of Commerce was buoyed but not everyone was so enthusiastic. If the controlled-access road is built along any of its proposed routes, Ronald Shipway loses.Shipway owns and operates a truck stop on U.S. 40, and his family business has been this route before. In 1926, John T. Shipway, his grandfather, opened for business along an earlier alignment of that highway, now called "Scenic U.S. 40", an out-of-the-way road for timeless travel. So Shipway and sons hope for the least, or at the most the upgrading of U.S. 40 to a six-lane highway with easy access all along the route. "Otherwise, I'd say this highway is gonna be about as abandoned as Scenic 40 was," Shipway said.

Shipway's cause got a boost this month and not just from city subways that threaten to delay the freeway. The Citizens Coalition for the Improvement of Route 40, whose members were foremost freeway fighters in the past, was reborn to fight anew the old alignment.

"We expect that all along," shrugged state highway administrator Caltrider.

"It won't be the first time anyone's taken us to court."

"Do you think the freeway will ever be built?" asked Mr. National Freeway in a gloomy mood last week.

And then, the highway visionary cast aside his despair to reveal his ultimate desire. "We want to convince West Virginia to build west to New Martinsville on the Ohio River," said Francis Kenney, "and then on to Zanesville and Cambridge, Ohio, which will effectively cut out [Pennsylvania].

"We want a road from Baltimore to the Ohio -- the B&O," said Mr. National Freeway with a smile.