West Virginia DOT Continues Five-Decade-Long Corridor H Project
When Congress authorized the Appalachian Development Highway to connect Appalachia to the rest of the world with four-lane limited access highways in 1965, so began one of the longest running road construction projects in the U.S.
As part of a 13-state regional system with 23 corridors, the idea behind the Appalachian Development Highway System (ADHS) was to connect remote areas of Appalachia to the national Interstate Highway System. Some of the corridors are now interstate highways and from New York to Mississippi, these roads opened commerce to the people of Appalachia. They were designed for one purpose - to open the entire region to more economic development opportunities.
As one of six (D, E, G, H, L, and Q) ADHS routes built in or through West Virginia, Corridor H is the only one not yet complete. Stretching 130 miles from I-79 at Weston, West Virginia, it runs to the Virginia border where it is designed to cover an additional 13 miles to the junction of I-81 and I-66 at Front Royal, Virginia.
When complete, this route will be eastern West Virginia's only direct access to a global port. Corridor H will make it easier for exported goods from West Virginia to have direct access to the large inland port at Front Royal, where commodities will ship via rail to Norfolk, the deepest port on the Eastern Seaboard.
Long-Term Project Challenges
Some might wonder why the other corridor routes that pass through West Virginia were completed but not the 52-year-old Corridor H project. Marvin Murphy, former West Virginia Department of Transportation (WVDOT) Highway Engineer and now Senior Advisor on the Corridor H project, says it's because most of the other routes were at least 50 miles shorter, the topography was less difficult on other corridors and there were more major environmental and historical matters with Corridor H.
"Add to this the concerns of active citizen groups both for and against the project, which resulted in considerable litigation and time delays. Also, funding was not always available over time, so these obstacles contributed to this long delay in the project's timeline." The initial Environmental Statement was created at one time in the early 1970s.
Concerns Murphy referenced were with the historical and environmental evaluations that were questioned by the environmental community. "Changes to the law placed more emphasis on certain factors. Therefore, some felt that the local road improvements had not been considered properly or enough in regards to both the damage to all the local sensitive areas and historical sites," Murphy shares.
Among specifics were the effects that Corridor H could have on the area in West Virginia known as Seneca Rocks. Seneca Rocks is a large formation and local landmark in Pendleton County in the state's Eastern Panhandle. It is the only "true peak" (one that's inaccessible except by technical rock climbing) on the East Coast of the U.S. As one of the best-known scenic attractions in West Virginia, the sheer rock faces of Seneca Rocks are a popular challenge for rock climbers. "As a result, the decision was made on the alignment selection to either go north or cross the Shenandoah Mountains," recalls Murphy.
Funding issues also were a deciding factor after the initial studies. As the results of these studies took place and former Senator Robert Byrd accelerated the pace of funding, the Corridor H Alternatives strengthened and became more vocal. Virginia also announced they would not pursue Corridor H, so West Virginia ultimately selected to take the northern route and work began to make the selection of preferred alternatives and complete further studies.
The studies were ultimately resolved in the courts after the change of route, with the decisions of the final environmental impact statement supported by the Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA) Record of Decision (ROD). "Ultimately, the route was broken in to nine different sections each requiring its own record of decision," says Murphy. "That is how we are working today."
"We will have changes and concerns until we finish the entire roadway," Murphy comments. "The WVDOT and FHWA agreed to keep all environmental groups apprised of any changes to our activities. Resource agencies committed to stay informed and involved throughout the life of the project and on additional concerns/testing for at least five years after completion. We must provide the settlement signers a six-month report on activities during construction. Some of our determinations were a first for these type decisions on a construction project," Murphy notes.
Resource agencies for the Corridor H project are from both federal and state levels and include the FHWA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the EPA and Army Corp of Engineers, as well as the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources, various historical entities and other concerned groups including the Sierra Club. There were 18 signers to the Corridor H Settlement Documents.
As mentioned previously, among the biggest early challenges were topography. "We now know how to handle this but it's expensive," says Murphy. "Funding, continual re-evaluations every three years if construction doesn't begin on a section, changing court decisions during and after construction at state and local level and constant studies of environmental and archeological impacts weigh heavily on the project," he comments. Getting a consensus of all groups (especially environmental), correct information to our citizens and the length of time the people have to be in limbo on property. "This all takes a toll, especially on the elderly."
Murphy says in the early days of the project, there was not a lot of support, including a group called the Corridor H Alternative group. "The original legal problem happened when we followed the southern route, which was headed toward Seneca Rocks. Geologically and historically they are very important. We also had a very sensitive area along White's Run following U.S. 33 because of many endangered and rare species," he recalls. Finally, with the number of recreational areas and caves, it was decided to take a northern route.
The northern route also had its share of challenges and other environmental concerns. It was a difficult way to go as well, because there was a Civil War battlefield. "While it was not yet designated, several people were interested in pursuing that," Murphy explains. The new route would go right through two battlefields - Moorefield Battlefield in Hardy County and Corrick's Ford in Tucker County. And then there was the Monongahela National Forest, which starts in Randolph County and passes through Tucker County. These were all 4 F areas - indicating resources that are of historical or archeological value.
Corridor H in West Virginia is currently 82 percent complete (including work under construction or contracted) and that figure is scheduled to increase to 87 percent by 2018. "While some delays have occurred in obtaining the permits from the Corp of Engineers and pertaining to the re-evaluation of some project sections, it doesn't appear anything will stall the project much longer.
"Corridor H is important route for the people of West Virginia due to the historical nature of our area and the unusual natural sites," notes Murphy. "As well as for those from surrounding states for tourism purposes, with a number ski resorts, biking and hiking trails, white water rafting and many other activities." The time to reach the Washington, D.C. area will be reduced considerably for business needs and social activities.
"Our vision was to see this road completed or under construction by 2020," Murphy says, "However, due to the current economic climate, it appears the finish of this roadway may be delayed to the late 2020s or 2030s." The economic impact of completing the highway by 2020 is currently estimated at $1.2 billion.