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$45 billion in federal funding announced for West Virginia’s infrastructure

By CHARLIE BOOTHE

Bluefield Daily Telegraph

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Several sources of revenue for infrastructure in the state may mean extending the King Coal Highway from the “bridge to nowhere” in Bluefield to Airport Road sooner than later.

Mike Mitchem, executive director of the King Coal Highway Authority, said Tuesday that the announcement of $45 billion in federal funding for the state’s infrastructure is good news.

“We could benefit from that money,” he said.

Rep. Evan Jenkins, R-W.Va., made the announcement Tuesday, saying his work on the House Appropriations Committee has helped secure full funding for the FAST Act, the landmark five-year highway bill that will reinvest in West Virginia’s infrastructure.

Jenkins supported $45 billion in highway spending for Fiscal Year 2018, meeting the level included in the FAST Act. The funding is included in the Transportation and Housing and Urban Development Appropriations bill, which the committee passed on Monday night.

“We have so many infrastructure needs across West Virginia, and this will provide important funding to help us rebuild our roads, repair our bridges, and construct new highways,” he said. “It will be up to the Governor and legislators in Charleston to decide how to prioritize this funding, and I will continue to urge them to invest in West Virginia’s long-promised projects like the King Coal Highway and Coalfields Expressway.”

Mitchem said this funding, along with recent moves approved by the state Legislature, make the future of the King Coal as well as the Coalfields Expressway look promising.

Mitchem is referring to one initiative approved this year to provide funding for highways and another that will go before voters Oct. 7.

In June, Gov. Jim Justice signed House Bill 1006, which will raise about $140 million a year for the State Road Fund through new fees and tax hikes.

On July 1, the cost of gasoline rose by 31/2 cents a gallon, bringing in about $60 million a year; the tax on purchasing a motor vehicle will increase from 5 percent to 6 percent and will raise $40 million a year; vehicle registration fees will increase from $28.50 to $50, raking in an extra $28 million annually; and several other DMV fee hikes will bring in another $12 million a year.

A bond referendum will go to voters in October. If passed, that referendum could mean about $2.8 billion raised in bonds to finance major road projects in the state.

Mitchem is now waiting on a chance to talk to the Governor.

“We have a call in and we are waiting to find out the dates (for meeting with Justice and others at the state level),” he said. “I’m looking forward to it.”

Mitchem said he will also be talking to legislators about how the $45 billion will be spent.

“We hope to get some of that for King Coal and the Coalfields Expressway,” he said.

King Coal Highway will intersect with I-77 as part of an interstate system that, when finished, will run from Detroit, Mich., to Myrtle Beach, S.C., bringing more people through the state, and Mercer County, each year.

The expressway will connect I-77 and I-64 near Beckley with I-81 in Southwest Virginia, cutting through McDowell and Wyoming counties.

The “bridge to nowhere” was finished about 10 years ago, but runs into the side of a mountain. The estimated $50 million project to take it from there to intersect with Airport Road is scheduled to start in 2019.

“Right now, we would like to see that section in Mercer County starting earlier than 2019,” Mitchem said. “If something happens and we get the funding, it would start sooner.”

That extension would help the area and the airport, he added, especially if the runway at the airport would be extended.

If larger planes can land there it will help Princeton and Bluefield with economic development, he said.

Mercer County Commissioner Greg Puckett agrees.

“The King Coal Highway is essential to the growth of Mercer County,” he said. “We have to be able to increase our accessibility and invest in our infrastructure if we are to recruit more businesses and job opportunities.”

Puckett said he supports the Governor’s highway plan as a way to move forward faster with both the King Coal and Coalfields Expressway.

“Those highways are absolutely crucial,” he said.

“I look forward to seeing this money put to good use across West Virginia to invest in our infrastructure – as go the roads, so go the jobs,” Jenkins said.

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