Vernon Maggard knows the dangers involved in traveling the winding strip of asphalt that snakes its way across Pine Mountain, through seven miles of the toughest and most beautiful terrain in Appalachia.
Maggard, a retired teacher, traveled the route to get to work. He encountered a number of wrecks over the years, including a deadly crash involving a school bus and a tractor-trailer.
So when Maggard sees bulldozers scraping vegetation off Pine Mountain to make way for a straighter U.S. 119, he doesn't wince.
"I disagree with anyone who says it hurts the scenery," he said. "The scenery has definitely improved because it's opened up and you get a much wider view."
Two years into a $37 million project intended to straighten curves and take some of the danger out of one of eastern Kentucky's best-known tourist attractions, the work is getting good reviews, even from local environmentalists.
"They've preserved as much beauty as possible," said Jeff Chapman-Crane, an artist and member of the environmental group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.
"They've worked really hard to keep the disruption to a minimum."
About 70 percent complete, the new road is taking shape. It will have scenic overlooks built from native stone surrounded by split-rail fences so that motorists can stop and enjoy views from atop one of Kentucky's tallest mountains. The shoulders of the road will be covered in plants native to the region.
"We're all proud of what has been accomplished up there and of what it will look like and drive like once we get done," said Doug Wright of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet. "We feel like it's really going to be the showplace of eastern Kentucky when we're done."
Chapman-Crane said some spectacular rock formations, unfortunately, are being cut away to make way for the widened highway.
"I have mixed feelings about that," he said. "I hate the destruction of some of the beauty of the mountain, but as someone who drives it every day, I'm pleased to see the road being improved. It was a dangerous road. I think the good outweighs the bad."
Local residents had pushed for decades for a safer road across Pine Mountain, whether that meant widening the existing route carved out in the 1920s, building anew road or digging a tunnel straight through. When a tractor-trailer collided with a school bus carrying five children in September 2000, state officials made the project a top priority. The bus driver was killed. None of the children was seriously injured.
Commercial trucks and other vehicles longer than 30 feet were banned from the mountain shortly after that crash.
Jim Webb, a Whitesburg, Ky., radio personality who lives atop the mountain, said he is certain the road is safer. He also said the view from the mountain has improved in several places.
"That's because the trees have been cut down," he said.
Last year, when construction was at its peak, parts of the mountain looked as if it was being mined. Bulldozers and giant earth-moving machines exposed soil and rock that had to be hauled away. The old pavement was ripped away and motorists drove on dirt and gravel.
The treeless right of way has since been seeded in grass, returning at least some of the yellow earth to a lush green. The roadbed has been paved with a smooth layer of asphalt.
Joyce Bender, a botanist with the Kentucky Nature Preserves Commission, said the Transportation Cabinet was careful to protect water quality in Bad Branch, a stream that originates on Pine Mountain and is considered one of the most pristine in the state.
"A road cut is a road cut," she said. "It's not pretty, but it's going to make the road safer for everyone. From our standpoint, it certainly seemed a lot more of the landscape could have been impacted. They worked closely with us to minimize the impacts."