Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

November 13, 2013

Route 52 may be a scenic drive, but we still need the King Coal Highway

— — Some things in life never change. I had barely made it out of the Daily Telegraph parking lot, across the Easley Bridge in Bluefield and just past Bluefield State College on U.S. Route 52 before I realized a coal truck was in front of me. It of course was driving at a relatively slow pace, and traffic was starting to back up on the proverbial highway that time forgot.

I don’t get out of the office as much as I used to back in the old days when I was a full-time beat reporter. So when I was offered the chance last week by Editor Samantha Perry to cover the final day of a high-profile murder trial in McDowell County, I welcomed the opportunity to make the short drive to Welch. It had been a few weeks since I last had the opportunity to drive back home to McDowell County. McDowell County is home, and always will be.

But when you are on a deadline — and trying to get to the city of Welch in time to catch a jury verdict — getting stuck behind a slow-moving coal truck, logging truck or generally large line of vehicles moving at a sluggish pace is never fun. Of course once you reach the top of the hill past Bluefield State College, you don’t have another legal passing lane until you reach the area near Kroger in Bluewell. But with the recent traffic pattern change at the Kroger intersection, the opportunity to pass a slow moving vehicle is even smaller — particularly when the line of vehicles in front of you is relatively large. But I did manage to pass the coal truck, and vowed not to stop for gas in Bluewell. Because if I did stop the slow moving coal truck — and the long line of vehicles traveling behind it — would most certainly get in front of me once again. I figured I had enough gas left in the tank to make it to Welch, and I did. Although it was cutting it a little closer than I would have preferred.

The scenic drive along Route 52 is always a joy — despite the occasional traffic congestion. Not a lot has changed over the years in the small communities and towns. Maybeury is still an active little community, and I still know to slow down to 25 mph while traveling through the towns of Keystone, Kimball and Northfork — even if the guy behind me gets really angry and tries to ride my bumper. I don’t mind driving slowly through the little towns as it gives me a chance to take in all of the familiar sights while reliving old childhood memories. One new and surprising development this go around was the single bar showing on my new cell phone. Apparently, I actually had a cell phone signal — albeit a very weak one — in the towns of Northfork and Keystone. That was a pleasant surprise.

I always smile at the sight of seeing Walmart in the town of Kimball. Back when I was a student attending school in McDowell County, we didn’t have a Walmart or a McDonalds. Things have certainly changed over the years. I’m glad to see that a new Pizza Hut also is now up and running, along with an Advance Auto and Family Dollar at the old Big Lots site in Welch. The new Subway also is a welcomed addition to Welch.

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For many across our region, driving U.S. Route 52 is a daily routine. Some drive the archaic highway each day to work and back home, while others make the commute to school or other regular destinations. And driving on this particular road can be a nightmare during periods of inclement weather, particularly accumulating snowstorms.

Bluefield’s bridge to nowhere stands as a haunting reminder of the desperate need for a resumption of construction on the King Coal Highway.

The future Interstate 73/74/75 corridor is the key to future growth for our region. It is proposed as a modern four-lane corridor providing a safer and quicker route to and from the region. But construction on the King Coal Highway remains stalled — thanks in part to the inability of lawmakers in Washington to agree on a new, long-term federal highway bill. And to really agree upon anything for that matter. But without a new federal highway bill, the individuals states are limited in what they can do when it comes to building new future interstate corridors like the King Coal Highway.

But at some point we are going to have to get serious about building bridges and roads once again. Aging and archaic roadways like Route 52 must eventually be upgraded. And I can’t think of a better starting point than the King Coal Highway and the Coalfields Expressway.

Charles Owens is the Daily Telegraph’s assistant managing editor. Contact him at cowens@bdtonline.com. Follow him @BDTOwens.

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