by BILL ARCHER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
There was a lot at stake on Wednesday when members of the King Coal Highway Authority rode a bus to Washington, D.C., to meet with congressional representatives. For years, authority members have been touting the economic development potential that a new highway would have on southern West Virginia, but after a difficult winter with existing roads taking a tremendous beating, the authority focused on safety concerns on their visit.
“We’re going to keep coming up here,” Tom Hall, president of the King Coal Highway Association said as the bus was stuck in traffic on I-66 coming out of the nation’s capital. “We do it because if we don’t, it would be fatal to that highway project.”
“I think all of our elected officials understand,” Marc Meachum, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Bluefield Chamber of Commerce said. Meachum is a member of the authority. “We know if we don’t do this — if we don’t keep coming up here and keep talking about this project — it will be forgotten. We have to have some better roads.”
Mike Mitchem, executive director of the authority, said that economic development has always been an important component of the authority’s initiative, but events in the past week have underscored the safety aspects that good roads would bring to the region.
“That’s a dangerous situation we have on Route 1 near Iaeger,” Mitchem said. “We discussed that with the legislators and I think they heard what we were saying. We weren’t here just to talk about the need for the completion of I-73/74.”
The delegation met with U.S. Senator Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., U.S. Reps. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va. Reps. Capito and Rahall each issued statements about the visits before the delegation even made it off the Beltway.
“King Coal Highway Authority members, business, industry, labor and I are all on the same track: road building speeds short and long-term job creation,” Rahall was quoted in a press release as stating. “A bold, long-term fully funded federal transportation bill would be a big step in moving our state’s highway projects, like King Coal and Tolsia highways forward.”
“Investment in West Virginia’s highways is an investment in West Virginia’s economy,” Capito was quoted in a press release as stating. “Completing the King Coal Highway will help grow the economy, connect communities and ensure safer travel for everyone.”
Rahall is the top Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Capito is also a member of the same House committee.
“We talked about the portion of the project from the Christine West Bridge to the Airport Road — both the completion of the project, and the possibility of completing a two-lane section of that road,” Mitchem said. “We talked about the completion of the King Coal/Coalfields Expressway interchange project at Indian Ridge as well as making a push for $25 million in funding from the TIGER Grant program for the Sharon Heights Connector project near Gilbert.”
Wilson Butt, a member of the authority, said that it is vital to the success of the project to get included in the state’s six-year plan. “With no congressional earmarks any more, if we don’t get placed on the six-year plan, we don’t have much hope of getting any funding. Doing away with congressional earmarks really hurt our representatives from being able to provide help to projects like this one.”
Still, Christine West expressed hope for the project. “I think the two-lane project from the West Bridge to Route 123 will give them some incentive,” West said. “I told Congressman Rahall that we will never give up on this project.”
Julie Ball, Mercer County Circuit Clerk, said that she was impressed by the bipartisan spirit among the state’s representative. “I think they’re really working hard for us,” Ball said. “I had a good feeling about it.” Ball said that she was impressed by the way all three — Manchin, Rahall and Capito — reacted to the situation in Iaeger.
“It’s a challenge to work for better roads, but we’re going to keep on working,” Ball said. “It’s an everyday battle.”
Hall said that congress will take up a new transportation bill in September. He said the authority will continue working with federal representatives as well as with the state to get the King Coal Highway included in the state’s six-year plan.
— Contact Bill Archer at firstname.lastname@example.org