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Gov. Justice begins SOS tour addressing the need to finish King Coal Highway, Coalfield Expressway


Bluefield Daily Telegraph

SOPHIA, W.Va.  — If Governor Jim Justice has his way, Bluefield’s infamous “bridge to nowhere,” a section of the long-delayed King Coal Highway, may soon go somewhere.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice visits the Coalfields Expressway project on Route 121 on Sunday. This was the first stop of Justice’s “Save our State” tour.
(Photo by Jessica Nuzzo)

That was one of the road projects he discussed Sunday afternoon at the beginning of his SOS (Save Our State) tour, which highlights infrastructure upgrades around the state as well as his proposed revenue increases to pay for it all.

The kickoff event was held at the end of the four-lane paved part of the Coalfields Expressway (Rt. 121) near Sophia in Raleigh County.

 With a crowd of about 300 gathered on newly placed gravel where the paved part of the highway ends, Justice said when he became governor a few weeks ago he was able to “look under the sheets at the state of being” West Virginia is in.
What he saw revealed to him the state is “on the edge” of dying.

“We know we are 50th in about every way,” he said. “We are all dying. We are too good to die.”

Justice said the state will lose even more people and more jobs if something is not done to grow the economy and entice people to come here, not leave.

Transportation is a big part of that, he said, and those two major arteries, King Coal Highway and Coalfield Expressway, will breathe new life into the southern part of the state.

The expressway will connect I-77 and I-64 with Southwest Virginia, cutting through McDowell and Wyoming counties at a price tag of about $1 billion.

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. The projected cost of the West Virginia portion is about $1.3 billion.

The federal government will pay 80 percent of the cost, if the money is ever appropriated.

Although sections of each highway are either complete, partially done or not even designed yet, Justice’s initial projects, which also include other road upgrades all around the state, would move each along and position the state to have the 20 percent of the total cost needed, he said.

That will then make it easier to get the 80 percent of the needed funding from the federal government, he added. 

The total cost of his transportation proposal now is $465 million.

However, with the state already facing a $500 million deficit, he said the only way to make up the deficit and raise the money for the road projects is to increase revenue.

“I’m all for getting rid of all the waste (in state government) we can,” he said. “We’ve already taken away the low-hanging, easy fruit (in cuts). If you cut deeper, more people will leave and we will have to close parks and schools and it will sabotage” any chance of growth by using the “sacred creed of balance the budget.”

Justice said a way has to be found to find new revenue because even with proposed cuts, it would only amount to $11 million. “But we still have $489 million to go (of the $500 million shortfall). What are we going to do?”

Justice’s plan to raise the revenue includes:

• Increasing the sales tax one-half of a penny.

• Raising the commercial gross revenue tax on businesses two-tenths of 1 percent.

• Increasing the gasoline tax by 10 cents a gallon.

• Hiking the license plate decal fee to $8 (but state residents would then pay no tolls on the turnpike, with those tolls increasing by $1).

“I don’t know what else to do,” he said. “This is the easiest and most painless way to go.”

The extra taxes can end as the state progresses, he added. “I want to sunset this.”

The plan will also create 48,000 jobs to do the work, he said.

Justice said he didn’t “create this mess. I just came along. We could have fixed it years ago,” adding that political infighting between the two parties has stifled progress and set the state back.

“I just want us to be West Virginians,” he said. “I don’t care about the political parties, whether someone is a Democrat or Republican … We can’t keep kicking the bloomin’ can down the road. Nobody will come here if we don’t move.”

West Virginia’s future can be bright, he said, floating the idea for the state to have “hubs” that are protected by the mountains for federal broadband security.

“I will talk to President Trump about this,” he said.

Justice told the crowd that if they want someone who will get things done, he is the guy to do it. If not, he’ll go back to grouse hunting.

“If you will go with me, I’ll build the damn road,” he said. “And I’ll build it now … we can do this.”

Justice said he wants residents to go the mountain tops and yell, “Yes, by God, we are West Virginians. Yes, by God, we are very proud.”

Tom Smith, Justice’s secretary of transportation, also spoke and said “it takes a group of committed folks to move this state.”

Transportation infrastructure and the economy are in distress, he said, and something has to be done.

Justice’s plan “can and will work,” he said, along with President Trump’s commitment to provide money for infrastructure.

Smith said the state needs to be “ready to go” when federal money is available.

Mike Mitchem, executive director of the King Coal Highway Authority, said it is estimated that the highway, once completed, will bring in 60 million visitors to the state each year.

“I am optimistic,” he said. “I feel like we are finally making progress.”

Mitchem said he hopes the state Legislature will work with Justice.

If the needed funding for these highways from both the state and federal government would become reality, they would be finished in about 10 years, he added. “We are hoping Trump’s plan for infrastructure will come through.”

Mitchem said the state can’t wait for the federal government to come up with 80 percent of the funding, though, and needs to take action on its own to start the process.

Justice has vision, he said, and wants that vision to become reality.

“He brings hope to Southern West Virginia,” Mitchem said of the Governor’s plan to help struggling coal counties with infrastructure. “That is the only way we are going to do it.”

Del. Ed Evans (D-McDowell County), who attended the event, agreed.

“This is it,” he said of the highways. “That is what will work.”

Mercer County Commissioner Greg Puckett was also at the event.

Puckett said it’s good to see highways a priority, especially the King Coal Highway, which will cut through Mercer County and connect to I-77 near Bluefield.

“We have a bridge to nowhere,” he said, referring to the $27 million bridge that veers off Rt. 460, crosses Rt. 19 and ends in the side of a hill. “There is no higher priority than to finish these projects.”

Construction of the bridge was finished in 2010.

After Justice’s presentation, attendees were invited to drive down the seven dirt miles of the Coalfield Expressway that is almost compete.

At the end is a ravine that will eventually be filled to accommodate the highway, which will then be only two miles from Mullens, “as the crow flies,” according to one official.

Justice, who drove his black Suburban leading about 25 other vehicles, stood at the end of the unfinished road and greeted people, telling everyone, “Let’s get it done.”

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