Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

March 2, 2014

Innovative ideas: King Coal solutions needed


Bluefield Daily Telegraph

— — After nearly six years of construction inactivity, it can be safely argued that innovative ideas are needed to help jump-start work on the long-delayed King Coal Highway project in southern West Virginia. Given the recent track record of Congress, we could be waiting several more years before federal funds can be found to help develop the local Interstate 73/74/75 corridor.

That’s why solutions also must be sought on the state level. A bipartisan group of lawmakers recently came up with an fresh idea to help fund the construction of the King Coal Highway, although the measure was allowed to die in committee. We aren’t surprised considering the apparent inability of some lawmakers north of Beckley to understand the unique transportation needs faced by the deep south counties.

The bill in question was unique in that it addressed two of the biggest transportation woes facing the region — turnpike tolls and the stalled King Coal Highway project. It specifically provided the state Parkways Authority with the power to issue $500 million worth of bonds to finance the construction of the King Coal Highway once tolls are removed from the 88-mile turnpike in 2019. That is when the original bond indebtedness associated with the toll road is due to be paid in full.

So, in essence, it could have addressed three problems. One, it would have guaranteed the removal of turnpike tolls come 2019 — thus eliminating this unfair financial burden placed on southern West Virginia motorists who are charged to travel to and from Charleston. Secondly, it would have provided a new role for the Parkways Authority after 2019. And last but certainly not least, it would have provided a significant state revenue funding source for the construction of the King Coal Highway.

The proposal had merit, and was certainly worthy of additional discussion and debate. But without that, it is difficult at this time to say whether such a bond financing proposal could be the ultimate solution for the King Coal Highway.

The local corridor of the future Interstate 73/74/75 system will extend through both Mercer and McDowell counties. It has been identified as a high-priority corridor for construction.

Delegate Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer, who introduced the bill, says he is still attempting to get the measure placed in a study resolution. If not, he plans on reintroducing the measure during the next legislative session. In addition to Gearheart, the bill was supported by Delegate Joe Ellington, R-Mercer, Delegate John Shott, R-Mercer, Delegate Clif Moore, D-McDowell, Delegate Eric Householder, R-Berkley, Delegate Margaret Anne Staggers, D-Fayette, Delegate Larry Kump, R-Berkeley, Delegate Steve Westfall, R-Jackson, and Delegate Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson.

Clearly this proposal merited further discussion and debate.

Construction on the King Coal Highway in Mercer County has been stalled since 2008. The future interstate corridor currently comes to an abrupt end on the side of a mountain near Stoney Ridge and the Mercer Mall. It is estimated that another $66 million will be needed to create a usable segment of the highway near Bluefield connecting it with Route 123 and the area near the Mercer County Airport.

As it stands now, we still have a bridge to nowhere in Mercer County, and no clear path to state or federal funding to jump-start this high-priority interstate corridor. That’s why the search for innovative solutions must continue on both the state, local and federal levels.