If you build it, they will come. These famous words were uttered in the movie Field of Dreams. In the case of the movie, these words were about a baseball field in the middle of Iowa. The same phrase is driving the Coalfields Expressway Project, a 114-mile highway slated to go through Southern West Virginia and into Virginia.
Designed way back in 1998, the most recent phase of the project is expected to be complete in the summer of 2019. With the completion of this section of the highway, there will be 12 miles of fully completed expressway. That's right: this project, which originally dates back to the 1980’s, is just 10 percent complete.
Richard Browning, who is the head of the Coalfields Expressway Authority, offers background on the project, “In the 1980's, we saw that this corridor was not part of the interstate or Appalachian Highway Development System, overseen by the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC). We recognized that in order to get ourselves on an equal playing field with the rest of the state, and even the country, the highway was needed.”
In 1989, the West Virginia House of Delegates passed a resolution for a feasibility study to determine need for a new highway in Southern West Virginia. The Coalfields Expressway Authority was created in 1996 in an effort to promote the highway and project design began in 1998 with actual construction beginning in 2000.
Since the project was proposed, it has run into a number of challenges and obstacles. Because the highway was in Browning's words, a grassroots effort, there was little recognition from the West Virginia Division of Highways in the state and so no state funding was approved with the exception of matching funds for earmarked federal appropriations from Senator Robert C. Byrd and Congressman Nick Rahall.
More recently, the state has fully approved the project. Governor Jim Justice has vowed to build the road, as investing in infrastructure is the centerpiece of his plan to grow the economy. However, they have been struggling to find workers.
The West Virginia economy has been very dependent upon the energy (coal) industry. This dependence has put them in a “boom/bust” cycle, with the arrow pointed primarily at “bust” more often than not. With the economy suffering, the state has seen significant out migration as people go elsewhere in search of employment.
Even though the amount of miles completed and useable are minimal, there has already been some positive economic impact. A federal correctional facility was built near the town of Welch, which is on an alignment of highway. The facility provides 400 jobs.
The current section of the Coalfields Expressway being worked on will connect Slab Fork and Mullens, West Virginia. The area involved is primarily rural. Mullens, however, is a hub in the area as it has some economic viability. Because the area is rural, the needs are greater. “It's not just highway development but the area needs water, sewage, and broadband to support the population and make the area viable for business,” says Browning. “We need to do what we can to create a space for business and jobs.”
“We wanted to provide a multi-lane expressway for this quarter with partial control access to connect the interstate to the U.S. route in Virginia in order to promote economic opportunities in the region,” says Jimmy Wriston, Chief Engineering Advisor for West Virginia Department of Transportation (WVDOT). Wriston, who works directly for the West Virginia Secretary of Transportation, has been with the WVDOT for 20 years and has been engaged in the Coalfields Expressway for 14 years.
Wriston describes his role on the project as the engineer's engineer. He gets, “the right people in the right place doing the right thing at the right time.” While Wriston is involved with a number of projects, the Coalfields Expressway project is particularly near and dear as it includes his home county.
The current roadways in the area are winding two lane highways with steep grades and severe curvatures. “The Coalfields Expressway is being built to high standards and will greatly reduce travel time,” says Wriston. With the convenience the new highway will offer, Wriston believes West Virginia will gain greatly, “Having modern transportation is paramount to economic prosperity.” The state is uniquely situated as it is within 500 miles range of 65 percent of the country's population making it an ideal hub for economic activity.
Building the road has presented a great construction challenge as the area features challenging topography. The area is so challenging that it has led to construction costs over $20 million per mile. To date, the Federal Government has contributed $140 million in federal funds to the expressway while the State of West Virginia has contributed over $40 million. The excessive costs are for a few reasons.
As the name implies, the Coalfields Express goes through coalfields. Some of the property has had coal reserves underneath it. Contractors can extract the coal and market it. While this is an economic benefit, having the coal there adds an extra level of scrutiny from the Environmental Protection Agency. It also means that environmental studies and approval are required with each step of the project. In addition to the area being environmentally sensitive, there are historical aspects there, and they have come across old cemeteries.
The terrain in the area is especially challenging to build on. The topography is made up of lots of mountains and no flat lands. The cuts are high and steep and the mountains are made up of hard rock. Wriston says, “Preliminary engineering tasks such as core borings and subsurface exploration for that many miles is time consuming, expensive, not to mention challenging to access. Road building in West Virginia is not for the faint of heart.”
The makes it challenging to get equipment to the area. After each section is built, it's utilized to get to the next one. To get this slow, tedious, expensive construction done, “We are breaking it down to doable parts and chipping away at it,” says Wriston.
While Wriston says it would be nice to build a corridor like this in one fell swoop, it would require the state to have approximately $1.5 billion on hand to dedicate solely to the project. In addition, there would be the challenge of manpower, “We’re a small state and a project of this magnitude would certainly stretch the limitations of even a consortium of several of our largest contractors working together.”
The confidence in the ultimate completion of the project that Wriston exudes is drawn from the pride he feels in his fellow West Virginians. “We have a reputation for being some of the finest workforce in the country and are hardworking people.”
“If all things were right – money and staffing – the Coalfields Expressway could have been completed in about 10 years,” says Browning. When the entire expressway will be completed is unknown; however it will come to fruition at some point. Browning says, “We have to do it. It's the only future for this area.”
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