Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

January 20, 2013

Highways commission asks W.Va. leaders for $1.1 billion

By KATE COIL
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

BLUEFIELD — The King Coal Highway Authority is hoping state leaders will approve preliminary recommendations for expanding the amount of money West Virginia spends on building new highways.

The Governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Highway’s infrastructure is suggesting the state spend an additional $1.1 billion to maintain and extend highways across the state with $750 million a year going to repairing and maintaining current roads while $380 million would go to new road construction.

Marc Meachum, president and executive director of the Greater Bluefield Chamber of Commerce, and a member of the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways, said maintaining current roadways has been more of a focus than building new ones.

“Obviously, there are highway needs in the state of a more critical nature,” Meachum said. “What probably will be the initial focus is on getting the road maintenance budget where it needs to be, but this is also important. We had two recommendations the infrastructure committee made to the revenue committee, which was an increase to the maintenance budget for the state’s highway fund and the other for new construction. Both are challenges in different regards, but it would be difficult to look for new construction money until we can be sure the current highway system is currently maintained.”

Though Meachum said he and other members of the infrastructure initially recommended $1.1 billion in spending, those numbers may decrease as the proposals go through other subcommittees and to the Legislature.

“I was on the infrastructure subcommittee and our recommendations are now going to another subcommittee — the revenue committee,” he said. “They will in turn make recommendations to other committees. Now, it will be May before this is finished. It won’t be this year, I don’t think, when the governor provides legislation for this, unless there is a special session.”

Meachum said he is hoping local projects — like the King Coal Highway — will receive some state funding in the future.

“I don’t know if there will be any approval for additional new construction funds,” Meachum said. “We all certainly hope there will be. We all understand the need to maintain what we have first. We are particularly passionate about the King Coal Highway, and the economic advantages of that. We will continue to push for that project. We are a small state, population wise, and we are talking some big numbers. The Legislature will be the ultimate determinate of how much money they need and think they can raise.”

Mike Mitchem, executive director of the King Coal Highway Authority, said more state funding for highway projects — especially projects still in progress — would be a definite benefit for the King Coal Highway.

“It should help out with the entirety of projects along the King Coal Highway,” Mitchem said. “It is a lot of money, though a lot of our roads cost about $25 million a mile. It would help out several portions. This would go a long way toward funding projects on our area highways.”

Mitchem said the King Coal Highway Authority would most likely apply for funds to extend a usable section of the highway from the K.A. Ammar Interchange in Bluefield to Route 123 near the Mercer County Airport if the governor approves the Blue Ribbon Highway Commission’s recommendations to increase state funding

“We would definitely be looking to apply for that,” he said. “I am not sure what type of application process it will be, but we will apply because we need to get some of these roads finished or at least get some more construction finished. Hopefully, some of that money can be used to finish our portion out to Route 123 in Mercer County so we can make a usable section there.”

Mitchem said expanding the highway would not only give motorists a usable portion of roadway but would also help the airport.

“We could use some of the dirt there to extend the airport, which could help economic development,” he said. “ It could help larger planes come in to the airport. We are hoping this is one of the things that will come out of this. The section in Bluefield toward McDowell County is an important section. Right now, that is one of the sections that is a major focus for us.”

With the lack of federal funds for highway projects in recent years, Mitchem said it is more important than ever that these projects receive funding from the state level.

“It is really important the state allocates its highway spending,” Mitchem said. “You have the bridge in Mercer County that is not being used. The longer it waits there the more problems you will have. We would like to see some money come through because we could use that. The TIGER grant is the new earmark, and there hasn’t been anything said about extending the TIGER grant program. There has been no discussion on furthering that program. Right now, there is still the moratorium on earmarks, so there is less federal funding coming through the pipeline. If the state can raise some funding, it will be really important to our local highways. Anytime we get federal money, it is only a 20 percent match and that is when you do get federal funds.”

— Contact Kate Coil at kcoil@bdtonline.com