Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Editorials

June 26, 2012

Precarious position

No funding for King Coal Highway

— — The U.S. Department of Transportation’s decision to reject a $20 million grant application for the King Coal Highway project in Mercer County leaves the future four-lane corridor in a precarious position.

The federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER grant program, was the region’s last real chance to jump-start construction on the local Interstate 73/74/75 corridor near Bluefield. Future federal funding for the project now remains at the mercy of a do-nothing Congress that remains hopelessly gridlocked in partisan politics.

The last long-term highway authorization bill approved by Congress expired in 2009. It has since been extended nine times. The latest short-term extension will expire Saturday. Barring an unforeseen miracle, lawmakers are expected to once again pass yet another short-term extension. And you can expect this ineffective pattern of short-term extensions to continue until at least after the presidential election in November.

But it will take a new, long-term federal highway bill before additional federal funds can be allocated toward the King Coal Highway. That means construction on the King Coal Highway in Mercer County will remain inactive until that occurs. And that’s a shame.

We have a bridge to nowhere near Bluefield. What we want is a bridge that leads to a usable segment of the future four-lane corridor — a bridge that links the existing K.A. Ammar Interchange and Kristine West Interchange/Bridge to Route 123 and the Mercer County Airport.

Why was the King Coal Highway project rejected for a TIGER grant? It is hard to say at this point. The Coalfields Expressway — by comparison — was awarded a $5 million TIGER grant for the Mullens to West Helen section of the roadway near the border of Raleigh and Wyoming counties. While a $5 million grant may sound like good news for the Coalfields Expressway, the excitement about the reward is muted by reality. The truth of the matter is you can’t build a four-lane highway with only $5 million.

Sen. Richard Browning, D-Wyoming, is appreciative of the award — as he should be. However, he admits the $5 million is only enough to complete necessary right-of-way acquisitions on the project. It’s not enough to complete the project in Wyoming County, and it’s not enough to get the four-lane corridor to the border of McDowell County where it is proposed to interchange with the King Coal Highway.

Is all hope now lost for the King Coal Highway and the Coalfields Expressway? No. But the short-term future ahead certainly doesn’t look promising.

Until Congress can get its act together and pass a new, long-term highway bill, funding options for these future four-lane corridors looks limited. That leaves us with a bridge to nowhere in Bluefield. And that doesn’t help our economic development situation in Mercer County.

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