The Long History of West Virginia's Corridor H
As outlined in part one of this story in last month's issue, the Appalachian Development Highway System (ADHS) was designed in 1965 as a 13-state regional system in the eastern United States. The overall project called for 23 corridors, each offering a means for traffic to connect to major highway terminals. The goal was to connect remote areas of Appalachia to the national Interstate Highway System. Construction of Corridor H in West Virginia started slowly and remain uncompleted.
By 1974, widening projects were beginning on U.S. 33 immediately east of I-79 near Weston. However, environmental groups voiced concerns and protested a number of the proposed routes. In 1981, West Virginia initiated studies and hearings on an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the highway east of Shavers Fork but this effort stalled due to funding issues. In 1982, 12 years of construction began for a 40-mile section of Corridor H from I-79 east to just west of the city of Elkins.
Corridor H activity increased in the 1990's after U.S. Senator Robert Byrd was named chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee and highway funding was accelerated to West Virginia. At the state level, the West Virginia Department of Transportation (WVDOT) began a study that included a Corridor Selection Draft Environmental Impact Statement (CSDEIS). As part of the study, a new route was proposed where the highway would run northeast from Elkins to Parsons and east from Parsons to Davis. A northern route was added that directed the highway from Bismark and Scherr to Moorefield, then east to Virginia following current WV 55.
Former West Virginia Governor Cecil Underwood stated his administration's goal was to "...move aggressively toward construction of every segment of Corridor H as we have been financially and legally permitted to do so." In April 1996, West Virginia released its Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) and the Federal Highway Administration announced a Record of Decision (ROD) approving the 100-mile route four months later. The next milestone came in February 1999 when a U.S. District Court decided that the two agencies had considered all alternatives, including improvement of existing routes.
A successful appeal of that decision by a number of citizen and environmental groups led to a settlement agreement in December 1999, achieved through the Court of Appeals mediation program. This compromise broke the original ROD for the 100-mile route into nine segments, with ROD's to be issued for each segment. Construction began on some segments in 2000, with the following timeline of progress outlined for five of the nine segments:
· The North Elkins Bypass section opened in August 2002.
· Fourteen miles of highway from Baker to Moorefield were open to traffic in 2003.
· The segment east of Baker and WV 259 to Wardensville opened in October 2006.
· A 3-mile section of the 15-mile Moorefield to Forman segment opened to traffic in November 2005, which extended the highway west to end at US 220 just north of Moorefield. The remaining 12 miles of this section opened to traffic in October 2010.
· The remainder of the 14.5-mile Forman-to-Bismarck (west-to-east) section opened to traffic in late 2013.
West Virginia legislated the public-private partnership (P3) concept in 2008, expanding it further in 2013. The P3 concept is designed to avoid cost increases due to inflation and speed up construction time. On July 6, 2012, President Barack Obama signed P.L. 112-141 into law. This surface transportation bill is known as Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, or MAP-21. MAP-21 provided needed funds and required each state within the ADHS to make plans known within one year for the remaining roads to be built within the system. Corridor H was also made a national priority in the same piece of legislation and the funding formula for construction was changed from 80 percent federal/20 percent state to 100 percent federal funds.
Since 2013, a number of sections of Corridor H have been completed. These include a 16.2-mile section stretching from Davis to Bismarck opened in November 2014. In May 2015, a 4.4-mile section of the Corridor opened and extends from the Tucker County line to Bismarck in Grant County. In November 2015, a 3-mile long section opened near Mount Storm and a 7.5-mile stretch connecting Kerens to the 219 Connector was awarded for engineering and construction. This is part of the three stage Kerens-to-Parsons section, with expected completion in 2019.
Corridor H is 82 percent complete, under construction, or contracted currently in West Virginia, with completion scheduled to increase to 87 percent by 2018. Virginia's section of Corridor H is scheduled to be complete by 2025 and West Virginia's entire section is scheduled to be complete by 2036.
Since the environmental impact is such a major part of this story, Construction recently sat down with a past president of both Corridor H Alternatives and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, Hugh Rogers, for his perspective. Corridor H Alternatives was organized in the 1990's by West Virginia citizens who were concerned about the road project's overall impact.
Rogers moved to West Virginia with his wife, Ruth, their two small children, and two other Peace Corps families in 1976. As a graduate of the University of North Carolina Law School, Hugh's Peace Corps assignment in Korea included teaching law at the Korean Legal Center, sponsored by that country's Supreme Court. Ruth taught English at Ewha Women's University, in Seoul and as an artist, studied oriental brush painting there.
The Rogers' joined the Highlands Conservancy, West Virginia's oldest statewide environmental organization, about 1977. "When we first moved here, we were sort of passive members," Rogers recalls. The original southern route for Corridor H came out of Elkins and it wasn't an issue for 15 years. "One of the factors that brought it to a screeching halt was that construction cut off the spring feeding a federal fish hatchery," he says. "In addition, new U.S. environmental laws required more detailed environmental impact statements (EIS)."
By 1990, the state hired Baker Engineering for an updated EIS. The EIS process allows for at least two opportunities for public comment. Rogers says sometimes there are only positive comments in this type situation. However, Corridor H Alternatives was formed around 1992 as an assembly of four smaller, local groups. "At the time, I was not playing a role in relation to the Highlands Conservancy. These local groups wanted to make sure that the EIS looked at the important issues and didn't just gloss over them," he notes.
According to Rogers, the Highlands Conservancy wanted to send the Corridor H route north to protect the Monongahela National Forest and Seneca Rocks (part of a designated National Recreation Area). "The more we got involved, the more support we found out there for fighting projects like this around the country, so we were able to get national support," he shares. Soon after, the then-president of Highlands Conservancy recruited Rogers to join the board of Corridor H Alternatives. He served as President from 2004 to 2011 and remains an active board member.
Rogers says a turning point came in November 1996 when the ROD was filed by the WVDOT for the proposed Corridor H route. "We filed a lawsuit opposing the route but lost in the District Court. We later appealed and won on a historic preservation issue in the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia," he says. The higher court recommended mediation going forward. Rogers says an important gain in the settlement agreement was that no bypass would be built around Wardensville for 20 years in order to allow the town to adjust to the new highway. As a result, the town has been revitalized. Construction is set to begin on the 5-mile stretch from the Virginia/West Virginia border to Wardensville in 2020.
Battlefields, Rivers and Forests
Rogers and the Corridor H Alternatives group's concerns center on the land and resources. "No one wants to give up their own land," he points out. "But, the bigger concerns were the national forests, rivers and historic sites. The further we probed, the more we discovered the multitude of resources we needed to protect. As a result, many people became interested and joined the effort. We didn't trust that the government could do what they said they were going to do," he comments.
When it came to the settlement agreement, Rogers says the biggest shift WVDOT had to make was to avoid Corrick's Ford Battlefield (a Civil War site), the Shavers Fork River and the Monongahela National Forest. The settlement agreement allowed for a 40 percent shift in the original route. "One of the tricky points in the agreement was that if the town councils of Thomas and Davis didn't agree with the new alignment, then the DOT could go back to their original proposed route by default," he notes. So far, this is the only section that does not have a Federal Highway Administration ROD. "They want an agreement before they sign off on it," he adds.
This area includes Big Run Bog (a cranberry wetland), that has numerous rare plants with many natural features and carnivorous plants like Venus Fly Trap. Rogers says the region has been designated a Research Natural Area (RNA). RNA's are part of a nationwide network of ecological areas set aside for both research and education. The network includes areas managed by many Federal agencies to characterize certain types of important forest, shrubland, grassland, aquatic, geological, alpine or similar environments that have unique characteristics of scientific interest. The areas contain important ecological and scientific values and are managed for minimum human disturbance. "The area's unusual topography is somewhat like Canada but is still influenced by the regional plants of this latitude," he says.
The Pros and Cons
From Rogers' perspective, the pros and cons of Corridor H are obvious. "A pro, of course, is saving time. The cons include disruption to the environment and settled land patterns." He thinks the most rewards for the project are for those individuals who are already better off. "For example, Corridor H will certainly help the second home market for those coming from the Washington, D.C., area now that it's just three hours away. It won't do much for most of the people who are already living here."
Rogers remains involved with Corridor H as he wants to "see how this all ends." He says the WVDOT is gearing up to finish both the east and west ends but the middle section is still routed through the Monongahela National Forest. One of the impacts of such a long project is the EIS must be updated. "They are finding new impediments along the way," he comments. In the Blackwater Canyon, a number of bat species have been identified as endangered. Rogers says that the long delays on the project have allowed for more reasonable consideration of its impacts. "My theory is that these type projects have become a sort of civic religion. It's rare to find any politician who wouldn't back this sort of thing. We need time for second thoughts."