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Coalfield Expressway director: Justice should keep promise on building highway


Bluefield Daily Telegraph

BLUEFIELD, W.Va. — Gov. Jim Justice has pushed his highways plan since he was running last year, but much of it hinges on the upcoming bond referendum that would provide $1.6 billion in money for the state’s roads.

“If you will go with me, I’ll build the damn road,” Justice said in February standing at the end of a part of the Coalfield Expressway in Sophia that is complete. “And I’ll build it now … we can do this.”

Richard Browning, executive director Coalfield Expressway Authority, views a portion of the unfinished road near Waco in Wyoming County.
(Register-Herald photo by Rick Barbero)

Richard Browning, executive director of the Coalfield Expressway Authority based in Wyoming County, plans to hold him to his word if the bond passes.

“When the Governor started his SOS (Save Our State) campaign he vowed to build the highway,” he said. Browning said if the referendum passes, he will tell Justice, “Here’s your chance, Governor.”

The bond will be decided by voters on Oct. 7.

“If the bond doesn’t pass I’m not optimistic at all because there is no money to work with,” he said. “If it does pass, there is a pot of money there we can compete for.”

Competing for those dollars is one thing the authority does.

But both the Coalfield Expressway and King Coal Highway authorities have been struggling with lack of funding. In fact, the King Coal Highway Authority closed its doors this week after the Legislature cut funding entirely this year.

Browning said his office is still open, using money that has accumulated over the years, enough to get him through until the end of this fiscal year (June 30, 2018).

“I am operating on money we saved from prior years,” he said. “We are on a shoestring budget.”

Browning said the authority has been cut over the years “quite a bit.”

“I kind of knew this day would eventually come,” he said, adding that authorities have been instrumental in spreading the word, lobbying, informing people, garnering funding and generally keeping the pressure on to make some progress.

As an example, a section of the highway in Mullins that only needed paving was put on the back burner until the authority got involved.

“We were able to advocate for that,” Browning said, adding that the highway would have been usable if paved. “We did get $55 million in general obligation bonds (and the section was paved). We have an effect.”

That is a concern for Mercer County Commissioner Greg Puckett, who said the King Coal Highway, which directly impacts the county, no longer has a voice.

“Who will lobby for funding for the road?” he asked. “We have no voice (without Mitchem).”

Browning said that is a concern because the final decision on where those dollars would be spent rests with the Governor.

“We still have to compete for the money,” he said. “The authorities do that. If we are not around, who will advocate for us? No one would have tried to get that Mullins paving project money. That’s what we do. We lobby and work hard in getting it.”

The new taxes that Justice wanted, and got, include higher Department of Motor Vehicle fees and gasoline taxes. They will raise about $130 million a year, but those funds are being used for road maintenance issues that have been neglected for years, Browning said.

How much of that money will be available and how much of it will be used to pay off the bond, if it passes, has not been determined.

Browning is also hoping Pres. Trump’s promise to initiate an infrastructure plan to bring federal dollars into the mix will happen.

“That would be icing on the cake if Congress would pass a federal infrastructure bill and we pass these bonds,” he said. “That would mean more money to use at one time. It would also provide construction jobs immediately.”

But, he added, “the Trump Administration has not yet been successful at anything.”

Del. Marty Gearheart (R-Mercer County) said recently that the matching funding required to obtain any available federal money, usually 10 to 20 percent, will be available if an infrastructure plan does pass.

Browning said people have been saying for years the economies of the southern counties have to diversify.

“But if we don’t have infrastructure – good roads, Internet – you can’t,” he said. “You can’t diversify your economy if you can’t diversify your infrastructure.”

Browning, who also served as a state senator, said he has been working to get the highway built for almost 30 years, when a resolution was passed supporting the road.

He blames the delay, at least in part, on the end of an era when legislators like the late Sen. Robert Byrd and former Congressman Nick Rahall could bring federal funding for roads into the state.

They understood that West Virginia is “terrain challenged,” he said, and need more money to build a mile of road than other states.

“Byrd could do that (bring in federal dollars) because there was more liberal philosophy for providing for people’s needs.”

That changed, he said, when a more conservative philosophy came into power.

When Justice made the comments about building the road, he said the Coalfield Expressway would breathe new life into the southern part of the state since it will connect I-77 and I-64 with I-81 in Southwest Virginia, cutting through McDowell and Wyoming counties.

King Coal HIghway is part of an interstate system that, when finished, will run from Detroit, Mich., to Myrtle Beach, S.C., bringing more people through the state each year, and through Mercer County.

Sections of each highway are either complete, partially done or not even designed yet.

But it all takes money, Browning said, and to have a shot at progress, the bond referendum must be passed.

Justice has reiterated his commitment to build the Coalfield Expressway numerous times since February.

Contact Charles Boothe at [email protected].

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