Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

August 2, 2012

Building highways is a major way to stimulate local and national economies

— — I’m sure you’ve heard the old phrase “my life flashed before my eyes.” Well, I can definitely say that’s not quite true.

When you think your life’s truly about to end, you’re thinking about how you might save it. Your past mistakes just don’t come up.

This feeling of impending death hit me more than once during my latest trip down U.S. Route 52 into McDowell County, or as some folks refer to it, the Highway that Time Forgot.

Last week photographer Eric DiNovo and myself drove down to Welch to cover the  bond hearing for a pair of murder suspects. Eric’s car was low on gas that day, so I was behind the wheel of my own car. That was a relief. Eric’s a good driver who has lots of experience on Route 52, but there’s something about having your own life in your own hands.

We encountered the bane of Route 52 before we even reached the McDowell County line — the coal truck. Drivers of these huge vehicles have to make several runs a day if they’re going to make any profit, and they can’t go very fast while heading uphill. I had to wait until we got into McDowell County before I spotted what I thought was a good moment to pass; and even then, I had to hit the gas because another car was coming.

The highway that time forgot is not for the faint of heart or the inattentive. You’re constantly coming up on multiple curves that force you to hit the brakes and slow down so you’re not pulled by gravity into the oncoming lane.

All the way to and from Welch, I saw vehicles that were constantly drifting into the opposing lanes. The only thing that seemed to be preventing head-on collisions was timing.

You also have to watch out for pedestrians even more than usual. The two-lane highway cuts through multiple towns and unincorporated communities, so you have to keep your eyes open constantly for people walking along the road or running — or just plain strolling — across the road. Thanks to the curves, you can be surprised unless you’re very attentive.

Maneuvering when you encounter a bad driver is also an issue. On the trip home from Welch, there was one driver who kept tailgating us. I was going the speed limit, but that wasn’t fast enough for him.

At one moment, he crossed the center line and acted like he was going to try passing near a curve. An oncoming car convinced him not to try it. After a few miles of these dangerous antics, I pulled into a convenience store’s lot and let him pass. He flew down the highway and was soon out of sight.

There are spots where you can pass a car, but it’s always heart in your mouth time.

Trucks and other cars roar by only a few feet away as you’re trying to pass a slow-moving vehicle. I had a few premonitions of doom outside of Welch and near Bramwell. Getting back to the Daily Telegraph after that journey was a relief.

For years organizers in several states have been pushing for funding that would create the new King Coal Highway, a modern four-lane corridor that would be a great improvement over the long, curvy Route 52.

McDowell County is having a hard time economically, but it still has assets such as beautiful scenery and history.

The Hatfield-McCoy Trail has brought ATV riders and their families into McDowell County and the surrounding region. A major highway would bring even more riders and their dollars to the county. The trail sees plenty of riders now, and more are coming thanks to shows about the trail on television.

The proximity to U.S. Route 460 and Interstate 77 helps bring riders from across the  country to the local trails, so imagine what a new major highway cutting through McDowell County could do.

Federal dollars are harder to find thanks to the recession, but building highways is a major way to stimulate local and national economies. The construction alone creates jobs and pumps money into local and state economies, and the increased highway access benefits the communities all along the new routes. The flow of traffic pumps up local economies.

I can remember the old days when the West Virginia Turnpike didn’t exist. The former highways threading through the mountains could be frightening.

Sometimes I think about driving down those roads just for nostalgia, but going down Route 52 dampens my enthusiasm for such adventures.

If the funding is found, maybe some day there will be adults who will remember the old days before the King Coal Highway, and marvel at how life has changed in McDowell County and southern West Virginia.

Greg Jordan is the Daily Telegraph’s senior reporter. Contact him at gjordan@bdtonline.com. Follow him @BDTJordan.

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