Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local News

December 24, 2012

Optimistic lawmakers plan spring trek to D.C. seeking King Coal funds

BLUEFIELD — Area officials say they are still optimistic that new state and federal funds can be found to continue construction on the King Coal Highway in Mercer County.

Mike Mitchem, executive director of the King Coal Highway Authority, said the West Virginia Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways is one of many sources officials are looking to in order to finance transportation projects.

“We are still looking at different things and funding sources,” Mitchem said. “We are still looking into this Blue Ribbon Commission the governor has put together for projects, and we are hoping to be a part of that. The Blue Ribbon Commission is hoping to have some public meetings. Once that gets finished, I hope we will hear something positive from that. They are tracking down ways to fund existing highways and new highways. We have been talking with different people. Right now, we are waiting to see what they come up with.”

Mitchem said members of the highway authority are also planning another trip to Washington to petition federal lawmakers to include the project in future federal transportation bills.

“We are planning another trip in April to Washington to visit with our lawmakers,” he said. “We are hoping some more money will come down. We didn’t get any from the last transportation bill, but we hope there will be a push for more transportation funds on the state and federal levels.”

Mitchem said he is optimistic the federal government will either continue the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program or create another transportation grant program. The King Coal Highway was passed over for a TIGER IV grant in June.

“As the new year comes up, hopefully things will look a little better on funding sources,” Mitchem said. “We are still in kind of a wait-and-see mode about if they will do the TIGER program again or another program like that. The last two or three years we have been involved in the TIGER program, and we are hoping they will have another one since that program has replaced the federal earmarks. We would like to see that section of Mercer County finished out to Route 123.”

Marc Meachum, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Bluefield Chamber of Commerce, was appointed to the West Virginia Blue Ribbon Highway Commission in September.

“The task of the infrastructure committee is to determine the idea of the need for highways in West Virginia not just short-term but long-term,” Meachum said. “Once we identify those needs, those highways will be handed over the revenue authority who will figure out the funding mechanism for these projects. Our goal is not to necessarily prioritize projects but identify the state’s needs in total. We are recognizing transportation needs and funding for the next 20 or 30 years in the future. Our charge is simply to report to the legislature, and the legislature will then decide what to do with our findings.”

Meachum said federal money is still funding transportation projects but in a different way than it has in the past.

“Federal money is still coming to the state,” Meachum said. “It is just the money is going to the state rather than being designated for specific projects by individual legislators. There is still federal funding, though Congress has a history of being pretty inconsistent with where that funding goes. It took so long for them to reauthorize the last highway bill, and that only lasts for two years. It is up to the state now to determine how that money will be spent.”

Meachum said the cost of building roads in West Virginia’s mountainous terrain often adds to the funding issues for highway projects.

“It is still $20 to $30 million to build one mile of highway in West Virginia,” Meachum said. “There are some areas where it is easier because those areas are a little flatter, but when you average it out that is what it comes to. When we did get an earmark for $5 million it wouldn’t build a quarter of a mile of four-lane highway. To finish the King Coal Highway project from here in Bluefield from the bridge to Route 123 is between $60 and $70 million. A $5 million dollar earmark for that would be nice, but it would have to go into the bank. Earmarks were valuable when they were available. The cost of building highways just is what it is.”

— Contact Kate Coil at kcoil@bdtonline.com

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