Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local News

July 16, 2014

Tomblin urged to act on King Coal Highway

BLUEFIELD — Members of the King Coal Highway Authority are urging Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to act quickly on a request by U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., to have the future four-lane corridor added to the state’s six-year highway improvement plan.

The Coalfields Expressway is already included in West Virginia’s Statewide Transportation Improvement Plan, but the King Coal Highway — the local route of the future Interstate 73/74 corridor — is not included in the six-year plan. Being in the state’s six-year plan would make the project eligible for additional state and federal funding, including future TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grants.

The authority board members, who met Tuesday in Bluefield, are urging Tomblin to act on Rahall’s request. If Tomblin agrees to put the King Coal Highway in the state’s six year transportation plan, it also could help with getting a long-delayed section of the project near Bluefield back under construction, board president Tom Hall said.

“Congressman Rahall has written the letter to Gov. Tomblin,” King Coal Highway Authority Executive Director Mike Mitchem said. “We are hoping to hear something positive soon about being put in the six-year plan.”

In the letter to Tomblin, Rahall said members of the King Coal Highway Authority have proposed a plan that involves the construction of two-lanes as opposed to four lanes — at least temporarily — in Mercer County in hopes of getting the project back under construction. It is estimated that it will take $66 million to build a useable segment of the interstate from its existing termination point at Stoney Ridge, near the Mercer Mall, to Route 123, near the Mercer County Airport. The cost of that could be cut nearly in half by building — at least initially — two-lanes instead of four-lanes.

“Recently, I met with members of the King Coal Highway Authority to discuss the state of that corridor, which as you know is a key transportation artery with tremendous potential to open up southern West Virginia to vast economic opportunities,” Rahall said in the letter to Tomblin. “As we discussed during that meeting, a necessary prerequisite to securing federal and/or state funding is that section of the planned highway be placed on West Virginia’s Statewide Transportation Improvement plan.”

“Those of you who are our elected officials representing us — we really need your support,” authority board member Charles Justice said to Mercer County Commissioner Terry Basham and other officials who were in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting. “Those of you who are elected officials, you need to support organizations like us.”

Basham said he has supported the King Coal Highway project for 25 years, adding he introduced the original statewide legislation for the project while serving in the House of Delegates in 1987.

Basham asked the board members if a two-lane section of the road were to be constructed initially to the airport if the other two remaining lanes would be completed to rough grade.

“When you get into road building, surely they will excavate it for the four-lane even though you are building just the two-lanes,” Basham said.

“We are really shooting for four-lanes — we just offered to them to do two-lanes just to get it started,” Mitchem said.

Mercer County Circuit Court Clerk Julie Ball said the King Coal Highway is critical to future economic development and growth in the region — particularly in light of recent mine layoffs and closures.

Christine West, a member of the authority board, said the response to the project was positive during the group’s recent visit to Washington.

“It was wonderful,” West said of the reception the authority members received from lawmakers in Washington. “They were much more upbeat. All of them were positive this time. None of them had a negative response.”

Mitchem said U.S. Rep. Shelley-Moore Capito even decided to tour the King Coal Highway — making stops in both Welch and Bluefield — after meeting with the authority board members in Washington.

— Contact Charles Owens at cowens@bdtonline.com

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