When John Denver sings of the country roads of Appalachia, he isn't warbling about the worn-out and hazardous thoroughfares that wind over many of the region's hills. What citizens in the coalfields have long known from personal experience or tragedy was confirmed recently in an exhaustive report by the federal Appalachian Regional Commission: Coal trucks are ruining thousands of miles of roads throughout the area. In 1974, more than 40 per cent of the coal-haul roads in eight coal states of Appalachia were found to be inadequate for the strains imposed by the daily traffic of the coal trucks. In addition to 6,880 miles of roadbed deterioration, the commission reports that between 897 and 1,103 bridges are run down; they are old, narrow, poorly constructed, and occur on an average of every 13 to 16 miles.

Among all the other ills that afflict Appalachia --from citizens having a personal income that is only 82 per cent of the national average to an infant mortality rate that is 50 per cent higher than the national average -- poor roads may appear to be far down the list of concerns. Yet, for a people already hard-pressed by the strains of mountain driving, being forced to travel over worn-out roads -- and all that that means in terms of highway safety and auto repairs -- is another intolerable burden. With coal production scheduled to increase -- at the moment, 58 per cent of Appalachia's coal is moved by trucks -- the deterioration is likely to continue. By 1980, another 2,000 miles of coal roads will become inadequate.

Although citizens of Appalachia are familiar with the poor state of the coal roads, the commission's report is the first thoroughly researched investigation. It says that as much as $5 billion may be needed to bring back (and maintain) the deteriorating roads and bridges. The complexity of raising the money is underscored by the commission's discussion of potential tax revenues: "Highway-user taxes would amount to subsidizing the coal industry, if all trucks were taxed. However, a tax levied just on coal trucks would be difficult to administer and would work a hardship on truckers who haul coal only occasionally." A severance tax -- a levy on coal as it is mined --would "more closely align those persons who would benefit with those who pay," but it would increase the severance tax that already exists to finance mine reclamation.

At some point, federal and state officials will be forced to chose among those options and others. The value of the ARC report is that it provides information to begin a calm and serious study of the matter now -- before pressures of increased production are added to those already imposed on citizens who have no choice but to travel the coal roads. To delay means that ultimate solutions will be that much more costly.