WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Appalachian Regional Commission is beginning a new era, flush with money and a renewed mandate to revitalize distressed rural communities, its leaders said Tuesday.

Perennially targeted by budget cutters who believe the economic development agency has outlived its usefulness, the 13-state commission won a trio of legislative victories this year to build highways and provide other services.

Last week, Congress renewed the program for the first time since 1982, giving the agency more clout in upcoming spending battles.

``We're looking forward to a future of stability and the ability to do some planning,'' said Jesse White, the agency's federal representative. ``The authorization will carry us through this administration and into the next millennium.''

White said the commission and its local partners have tried to do long-range planning but were at the mercy of congressional budget leaders as each fiscal year ended.

In addition to getting the program renewed through 2001, the commission got a provision in the June highway law to use existing gasoline tax revenues to complete the final 20 percent of a 3,025-mile network of roads through the Appalachian mountains.

The program also got $66.4 million for non-road projects as part of the annual appropriations process. With $450 million in gas tax money, the $516.4 million for fiscal 1999 represents the highest funding level ever for the commission, White said.

Last year, the commission got $170 million. Funding reached a low of $105 million in 1987.