Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Editorials

January 7, 2014

Coalfields Expressway: Slow but necessary progress

— — When ground was broken in 2001 on the first segment of the Coalfields Expressway in McDowell County, the late U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd predicted it would take years if not decades to complete the future four-lane corridor for southern West Virginia. He was correct.

Today, a good 13 years later, the road is still far from finished, and McDowell County still  lacks a usable four-lane corridor. But some progress has been made on the modern, four-lane corridor — particularly in Raleigh County. And a contract awarded late last year to Bizzack Construction of Lexington, Ky., will bring the road into Wyoming County. That is good news — even though it doesn’t provide any immediate relief to the good folks in neighboring McDowell County.

It is nevertheless another important step toward the ultimate goal of completing the Coalfields Expressway. The road is proposed to extend 60 miles through the coalfield counties of Raleigh, Wyoming and McDowell in southern West Virginia and another 51 miles in Buchanan, Wise and Dickenson counties in neighboring Southwest Virginia.

According to Coalfields Expressway Authority Executive Director Richard Browning, the new 1.9-mile contract will start west of Helen in Raleigh County and go into Wyoming County.

“This construction will bring the first four-lane into Wyoming County,” Browning said last week. “It’s a pretty big deal.”

The authority had approximately $30 million in funding available for the new 1.9-mile contract that was collected from various sources. The road currently ends in Raleigh County — about four miles shy of the Wyoming County line.

Browning says the authority is still working daily with the McDowell County Commission, and the McDowell County Economic Development Authority, as well as with private coal company partner Southern Minerals in hopes of jump starting another segment of the expressway in McDowell County.

Much of this work at the moment is focused on getting new construction permits. The authority has been working with the state Division of Highways, the Department of Environmental Protection, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The goal has been to meet all the agencies’ requirements.

As currently proposed, the private partner coal company would create a rough grade roadbed near Welch through the extraction of coal. The proposed coal synergy agreement would save the state of West Virginia upwards of $40 million. The planned two-mile segment in McDowell County would pick up where a 1.4-mile paved segment of the expressway ended in 2001. The work would be completed south of the proposed interchange of the Coalfields Expressway and the King Coal Highway at the Indian Ridge Industrial Park.

We welcome the news of a new contract that will bring the Coalfields Expressway into Wyoming County. And it is our hope that work can begin sooner than later on the proposed coal synergy contract in McDowell County.

It is imperative that McDowell County get a four-lane highway. If a coal synergy agreement can help expedite construction, officials should be allowed to proceed with vigor on the plan.

In the meantime, we would strongly encourage officials in Mercer County to consider any and all possible coal synergy plans or similar agreements that could help to jump-start the long-stalled and critically important King Coal Highway project near Bluefield.

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