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Highway authority seeks funding to remain in operation

By GREG JORDAN

Bluefield Daily Telegraph

PRINCETON, W.Va.  — An organization promoting the construction of a major highway through southern West Virginia, the King Coal Highway I-73/74 Authority, is seeking enough money to stay in operation.

Executive Director Mike Mitchem appeared Tuesday before the Mercer County Commission and said his organization’s budget had been reduced. Mitchem stated he has spoken with the governor’s office about the situation and was told no money would be available until July, and that is only if the funding request goes through.

“Last year we had a cut in our money from the Legislature and we’ve been frugal with the money we have left to this past month. I’ve talked to the governor’s office to get us some funding,” Mitchem told the county commission. “That leaves us three months and we average about $6,500-$6,600 a month. They knew we’ve been working on a lot of projects here in Mercer County. There’s the bridge called the Bridge to Nowhere, but we like to think of it as the Bridge to Opportunity.”

Gov. Jim Justice was trying to get the funding back into the budget with highway projects. Until then, the highway authority has expenses totaling $6,500 a month. This includes renting offices in Gilbert and Mitchem’s salary. These expenses are being “cut to the bare bones,” he said.

When Mercer County Commission President Gene Buckner asked Mitchem about his salary, he replied that he made $5,000 a month, and was prepared to take a pay cut. Mitchem estimated that the authority’s money would run out by the end of April.

“We would take anything,” he said about possible contributions.

Commissions in other counties which would be impacted by the King Coal Highway – such as McDowell, Wyoming, and Mingo – have been unable to provide extra funding due to their budget situations, Mitchem stated.

“We’ve gone to a lot of coal-based commissions, but a lot of those commissions are out of money right now,” he said.

Commissioner Bill Archer asked if the authority had seen any positive feedback from a recent USA Today story about the King Coal Highway. Mitchem replied that other news agencies such as MSNBC and a German television company called ADR came to the region to do stories about the highway project. King Coal Highway Authority members have been to Washington DC, and lawmakers have been very positive about the possibilities for the project, especially with President Trump’s plans for a major infrastructure initiative.

“I think right now it’s time to strike while the iron is hot,” Mitchem said.

Other parts of the I-73/74 project have been completed, but the parts in southern West Virginia, a lynch pin for the new highway, remain incomplete, Commissioner Greg Puckett said.

The commissioners asked Mitchem to put together a monthly expense sheet and outline the minimum amount of money the authority needs to continue operating, and to meet with him next week. The issue was tabled until more information becomes available.

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