Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

May 26, 2013

Area highway projects: Officials hopeful for funding

KATE COIL
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

BLUEFIELD — Despite a recent embargo on federal earmarks, local transportation officials and lawmakers are hopeful bipartisan cooperation will create more funding for highway projects in southern West Virginia.

Mike Mitchem, executive director of the King Coal Highway Authority, said the highway project is largely relying on money allocated to the state transportation department from the federal government.

“Right now we are waiting on word from what the Blue Ribbon committee is going to do,” Mitchem said. “We are hoping there will be some state funding we can get from that. We are also going to set up a meeting this month or next month with Transportation Secretary Paul Mattox to see if we can get part of this put in the six-year road project. We look forward to working with Congressman Rahall and our congressional delegation as well as our state leaders in seeking more funding for this project.”

Still, Mitchem said he is hopeful the federal government will be able to come through with more funding for the King Coal Highway.

“Federal funds are going to the states mostly now instead of directly to projects through earmarks,” Mitchem said. “We are also hopeful in the future there will be funds in a transportation bill. The two-year plan they recently passed expires 2014, so we are hoping in the next plan there is some more funding for us.”

U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, who serves as top Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said the ban on federal earmarks has hindered many transportation projects but he is hopeful more bipartisan projects will be taking place in the near future.

“Without earmarks, it is becoming tremendously difficult to secure federal funding for projects,” Rahall said. “We are trying to find ways to work around that. I have to give credit to U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., for trying to bring members of his party around to see the necessity of these funds. The climate in the transportation committee is much better than it has been in the past, and we are working across the aisle better than before.”

Rahall said the lack of a six-year transportation bill in 2012 has not helped transportation systems nation wide.

“Things like the recent bridge collapse in Washington state show how important our nation’s infrastructure is and how important it is to maintain,” Rahall said. “We are behind our international competitors in providing the infrastructure this nation needs and deserves.”

Even though not federal funding is coming down the pipeline, Mitchem said there is still construction taking place on the King Coal Highway.

“Right now, we have parts of the road that have been worked on such as sections in Mingo County from Horsepen Mountain to the old Gilbert High School, which is a four or five mile stretch,” he said. “We are awaiting EPA approval for construction on another area in Mingo County.”

Mitchem said the King Coal Highway and other local transportation projects are the key to southern West Virginia’s economic future.

“You will eventually be able to come from Michigan to Myrtle Beach once this corridor is complete,” he said. “It will open the area to tourism and economic development. It takes the areas out of the flood zones as well, especially in McDowell County where we have had all these floods. It will open mountains up to development for housings as well as provide safer transportation with four lanes of traffic.”

The geography of southern West Virginia makes highway systems even more vital to the region’s economic development, Rahall said.

“Our region is challenged geographically because of our terrain,” he said. “It is more expensive to build a road here than in flatter states, sometimes nine or ten times more expensive. We have a lack of air travel and other transportation services, so that leaves roadways as the only accessible way into our region. These roadways are our region’s way to connect to the major marketplaces of our country and the world.”

 — Contact Kate Coil at kcoil@bdtonline.com