Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Charles Owens

March 19, 2014

Renewed push for King Coal Highway as health care deadline approaches

— — The tragic headlines we’ve seen in recent weeks associated with U.S. Route 52 should be viewed as a call to action for officials on the local, state and federal levels as it relates to the long languishing King Coal Highway project in Mercer County. But you have to wonder if anyone is really listening.

I believe that Route 52 hands down is the most dangerous highway in our region. And I don’t know of many sane people who actually enjoy traveling this roadway during a big snowstorm. My first accident occurred many years ago on Route 52 during a period of snow and ice. I was a teenager at the time, but still remember the experience very well.

 In recent years, we have seen one crash after another on Route 52. When a big snowstorm comes, traffic along this primary roadway will often come to a complete standstill — and that’s not a good thing. That’s why we so desperately need the King Coal Highway.

This modern, four-lane corridor, will provide a safer, alternative route to the existing Route 52. The King Coal Highway is the local corridor of the future Interstate 73/74/75. But despite its high-priority ranking, construction on the King Coal Highway in Mercer County has been stalled since 2008. And work on the project hasn’t even begun in McDowell County — despite long-standing plans for an interchange of the King Coal Highway and the Coalfields Expressway near the new federal prison in Welch.

 The last segment of the King Coal Highway to be completed in Mercer County was the new twin interstate bridges high above Stoney Ridge. This was later renamed the Christine West Bridge.

 However, the project comes to an abrupt end at the mountain high above Stoney Ridge, and near the Mercer Mall. That’s why some people refer to it as our own “bridge to nowhere.”

Interestingly enough, 2008 also was the same year that our region was denied millions in federal stimulus dollars for the high-priority King Coal Highway corridor. Instead, all of the federal stimulus funds went to Beckley. The King Coal Highway also was recently, and inexplicably, denied a federal TIGER, or Transportation Infrastructure Generating Economic Recovery, grant.

Considering this is a big election year — with the control of Congress in play —  now would be the time for area lawmakers to step up and help find urgently needed federal dollars to complete a useable segment of the King Coal Highway in Mercer County.

And the same goes for state-level lawmakers and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. They too must play a role in helping to get this long-delayed project moving again.

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With the deadline quickly approaching for uninsured citizens to obtain health insurance under the new Affordable Care Act law, we are also seeing an increasing number of television and radio advertisements attacking the new law. And some of these commercials are targeting specific lawmakers who supported the measure.

Clearly, a lot of money is being spent on these new anti-health care law spots. This early bombardment of advertisements could be a sign of what is to come later this spring and summer as we inch ever closer to the all-important mid-term elections.

It will be interesting to see what role the Affordable Care Act will ultimately play in the fall elections. But until then, and as we approach the all-important March 31 deadline to sign up for health care coverage, what some are seeing is that many people are still oblivious to the new law. Some people currently without health insurance still do not realize that they are required to purchase health insurance by March 31 or face a financial fine. That penalty is estimated at about $100 for the first year, but increases to several hundred dollars after a couple of years without health insurance.

Another concern is the fact that folks are expected to sign up for health insurance over the Internet. This has been a problem since day one — particularly with the glitch-ridden healthcare.gov website. The new law also assumes everyone has unlimited high-speed broadband and is comfortable surfing online. But some folks still prefer old-fashion face-to-face contact with an actual human. Sure there is a toll-free number you can call, but recent Associated Press articles on the topic have also indicated long-delays for those who opt to call  instead of applying online.

As it stands now, time is quickly running out for those without health insurance to come in compliance with the new law. It will be interesting to see what happens in the months and weeks ahead.

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

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