Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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July 3, 2014

King Coal Highway, Coalfields Expressway supporters hopeful for funds

BLUEFIELD — With a reduction in federal aid for transportation projects looming for the states, area supporters of the King Coal Highway and the Coalfields Expressway say they are hopeful that Congress will now be compelled to act on a new long-term federal highway bill.

“I think Congress is going to have to act, or the state will run out of funding on the local level,” King Coal Highway Authority Executive Director Mike Mitchem said Wednesday. “We will be working with our congressional leaders on this.”

The individual states are expected to begin experiencing cut backs in federal transportation dollars during the first week in August due to a significant decrease in the balance of the federal Highway Trust Fund. The cuts in federal aid will vary from state to state, but are expected to average to about a 28 percent reduction in transportation dollars. And that’s only weeks before the current federal highway bill extension is due to expire, Coalfields Expressway Director Richard Browning said.

“The state’s will see the impacts when the Federal Highway Trust fund drops,” Browning said. “We are going to see that and that may be a good thing for people to see what their Congress is doing.”

In the absence of federal earmarks — which were eliminated several years ago — officials say the best hope for funding for projects like the Coalfields Expressway and the King Coal Highway is a new long-term federal transportation bill. The current highway bill extension is set to expire in September.

“I responded to a Facebook post last night about no earmarks,” Browning, a former state lawmaker, said. “We need earmarks. Coalfield has been built with earmarks. Other than the TIGER (Transportation Infrastructure Generating Economic Recovery) grant, everything we’ve used on the federal side has been earmarked money. Our money has all come through earmarks and special funding.”

The Coalfields Expressway is included in the state’s six-year highway improvement plan, which does make it eligible for state discretionary funds. About six miles of the project have been completed to date in Raleigh County with a current contract funded through a federal TIGER grant bringing the four-lane corridor to the Wyoming County line. It will ultimately connect with a non-paved section of the expressway in McDowell County near Welch.

The King Coal Highway project remains stalled in Mercer County. The last segment of the future four-lane corridor to be built near Bluefield were the twin-interstate bridges over Stoney Ridge back in 2007.

Browning said Washington must reinvest funding in roads and bridges.

“You drive around the country, and I see it every time I go somewhere,” Browning said. “The highways are clogged with more traffic. I tell you during the Clinton presidency, the economy doubled. But if you apply that same matrix to what we’ve got out here now, and you double the number of tractor trailers now that a good economy would cause — where would you put them? The economy is kind of (sluggish) now. And a big reason for that is the lack of infrastructure.”

– Contact Charles Owens at cowens@bdtonline.com

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