Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

March 9, 2014

Tragedy continues on Route 52 as progress on modern highway languishes

— — Every day for a week I entered the newsroom tense, stressed and incredibly frustrated. The reason for the aggravation was simple: The daily, morning commute on U.S. Route 52.

With heart racing and knuckles still white, I shared tales of motorists pulling out in front of me and others driving erratically on the Highway That Time Forgot. On a couple of days I blamed it on “Snow Madness,” the inability of some drivers to obey basic traffic laws when an inch or more of snow has fallen to the ground.

But, truth be told, I knew winter’s wrath wasn’t entirely to blame. There is something about Route 52 that brings out the worst in some drivers.

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Where to begin? Most motorists on this road seem to traverse it at one of two speeds: too fast or too slow. The recommended posted speed limit is rarely to be seen.

Yielding and stopping for other motorists who are turning across the flow of traffic into parking lots or side roads is another problematic area. It would appear that many are incapable of pausing and giving another driver a break.

Another concern is a lack of turning lanes; motorists are forced to stop and hold up the flow of traffic as they wait for an opportunity to turn left or right. And intolerant drivers often zigzag onto the shoulder of the road to pass the motorist holding up traffic. In the few places such as Bluewell where there are turning lanes, impatient drivers will use them to pass.

And impatience is a key word when describing the problems on Route 52. So many drivers take unnecessary risks that put themselves and others in danger.

Other drivers appear to be simply oblivious, pulling out onto the road without looking left or right.

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I wasn’t surprised last Wednesday when Greg Jordan headed out of the office to cover a three-car collision on Route 52 in Bluewell. It was a typical story on a typical day. Fortunately, no fatalities were reported, but there was enough damage and road delays to warrant an A-1 slot.

Later that evening it was a different story. The text from reporter Anne Elgin was gut-wrenching. “Three-vehicle wreck, two children dead, mother badly injured, on Route 52 ...”

I learned the accident happened in front of the Deliverance Temple Church, and I knew it was a bad spot on Route 52 where fender benders frequently occur.

While texting and talking with Anne and copy editors Andy and Jackie throughout the evening, I wondered if there would ever be a day when our newspaper was not reporting on constant tragedies on this dangerous roadway.

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In a follow-up story to the accident, many people who travel Route 52 frequently spoke out about the dangerous roadway.

There is an alternative to Route 52 — well, a planned alternative anyway.

It’s an upgraded, modern roadway — the King Coal Highway. It would take the place of the antiquated Route 52, and provide a safer alternative to the Highway That Time Forgot.

The future four-lane corridor is proposed to extend between Williamson and Bluefield through the counties of Mercer, McDowell, Mingo, Wyoming and Wayne. It has been designated as a high priority segment of a high priority corridor in the National Highway System. The King Coal Highway is the local corridor of the future Interstate 73/74/75. It ultimately will cover approximately 90 miles of mountainous southern West Virginia, opening it up to faster, safer transportation.

Most importantly for motorists in Mercer and McDowell counties, it will offer a modern, alternative route to the existing U.S. Route 52.

The West Virginia Division of Highways plans to build the highway from a point near Williamson to Interstate 77 at the Route 52 interchange in the Bluefield area.

Unfortunately, progress on the new road has stalled in recent years. Although it includes a big, beautiful, brand-new bridge right outside of Bluefield at Stoney Ridge, this bridge currently leads into the side of a mountain. Funding, specifically $66.9 million, has yet to be awarded to complete a 2.39-mile usable section of the roadway from the new bridge to the area near the Mercer County Airport.

In 2002, ground was broken on the first local phase of the project, the K.A. Ammar interchange. Twelve years later we’re still waiting.

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With no stimulus dollars, no TIGER (Transportation Infrastructure Generating Economic Recovery) grants and no long-term highway bill passed by Congress, progress on the modern replacement to Route 52 continues to languish.

While Democrats and Republicans battle it out, funding for critical infrastructure needs is suffering. And so are the people — the taxpayers, the voters, the motorists on Route 52 who travel a perilous roadway daily.

In Washington, compromise and progress seems to be an idea from the past. Meanwhile, in southern West Virginia, children are dying on a major thoroughfare that should have been upgraded years ago.

It’s something to think about.

Samantha Perry is editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at sperry@bdtonline. Follow her @BDTPerry.

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