By CHARLES OWENS
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
It is kind of funny how so much can change in such a short period of time. While getting started on our annual progress edition, I have spent the last couple of days researching stories from years, and decades, ago.
Remember the year 2000? In addition to all of the talk back then about the new millennium, it was also the year that construction began on the Coalfield Expressway in southern West Virginia — a project that had been in the planning stages for nearly two decades.
I can still remember the big groundbreaking ceremony in McDowell County like it was yesterday. I attended the celebration with our late executive editor, Tom Colley. During the program, I introduced him to folks in McDowell County he didn’t know, and he introduced me to the late Robert C. Byrd, the powerful West Virginia lawmaker who was able to steer millions of dollars in pork, if you will, to his beloved state of West Virginia. That pork was used to help start construction on new roads like the Coalfields Expressway and the King Coal Highway. It wasn’t really pork of course. That was simply the label given to federal earmarks by critics of the all-important federal appropriations.
But it was that pork secured by Byrd that helped to build so much in our region, including those segments of the King Coal Highway and the Coalfields Expressway that have been completed to date, along with the new health center that is being developed for Mercer County and so many other projects of importance to our region.
But in recent years, federal earmarks have been vilified by those who point to the pork as the reason our nation is deep in debt, and on the verge of reaching the so-called tipping point of no return. There is some truth to that argument. Pork has been used to build a couple of bridges to nowhere. And unfortunately, we have a bridge to nowhere in Bluefield at the moment. But it was never intended as such.
Byrd died in July of 2010 — leaving the region without its most powerful lawmaker. At about the same time, earmarks suddenly become the equivalent of snake venom — a word lawmakers in Washington dare not whisper unless they willingly commit political suicide.
So that brings us to today. We have no pork. We have no federal earmarks. But we do have TIGER, or Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grants. The Coalfields Expressway was awarded a $5 million TIGER grant Tuesday. Supporters of the Coalfields Expressway had requested a $100 million dollar grant. But $5 million is better than nothing. The $5 million grant will be used to secure a four-mile stretch right of way in the Mullens to West Helen Section of the roadway in Wyoming County. We are still waiting to hear if the King Coal Highway will receive a TIGER grant nor not.
Without a new federal highway bill — something a deeply divided Congress is apparently unable to agree upon — and without additional TIGER funding, our two future four-lane corridors that essentially dead in the water at the moment.
So it is a truly, truly sad state of politics for our nation at the moment. Maybe we should blame ourselves. When we gave Republicans control of the House, and Democrats control of the Senate, did we really expect them to work together like good little boys and girls? And what happens when you give one party control of both chambers of Congress? Normally they will abuse that power. So how in the world do you win?
Without bipartisanship, you can not move this country forward. And no — by saying the word “forward,” I’m not advocating some kind of radical socialist scheme. But I’ll admit that probably wasn’t the smartest campaign theme that the president could have used. If you can’t put your political differences aside, and you can’t work together, you are left with a political system that is truly broken.
Bipartisanship, and a little pork here and there, shouldn’t be considered a horrible thing. Socialism, however, should be frowned upon. But if lawmakers aren’t able to appropriate funding for projects in their home states, what is the point of sending them to Washington? Who is going to decide which projects will and won’t be built. The president? A Congress that can’t agree on anything? Come to think of it, who is making the decisions anymore on what federal dollars go where?
Until we can figure that out — and until lawmakers can at least agree upon a new, long-term federal highway bill — it looks like we will remain dead in the water in terms of road building in the Mountain State. And that’s a shame. The King Coal Highway and the Coalfields Expressway are two future four-lane corridors that are absolutely essential to our region.
The good citizens of McDowell County deserve a four-lane highway already. And we really don’t need a bridge to nowhere in Bluefield. We instead need a usable segment of the King Coal Highway.
Charles Owens is the Daily Telegraph’s assistant managing editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.