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Justice’s transportation plan: King Coal Highway included

By CHARLES OWENS

Bluefield Daily Telegraph

BLUEFIELD, W.Va.  — The King Coal Highway has cleared another hurdle in Charleston.

Supporters of the future Interstate 73/74/75 corridor were quick to point out Thursday that the Mercer County segment of the project was prominently displayed in Gov. Jim Justice’s listing of priority transportation projects during his State of the State address.

Midway through the governor’s presentation, a group of state highway workers wearing yellow hard hats entered the room carrying a large poster of priority West Virginia transportation projects. Near the top of the display was a listing of the King Coal Highway project in Mercer County calling for the construction of 3.8 miles of four lane road from John Nash Boulevard in Bluefield to the Airport Road, near the Mercer County Airport, at a cost of $50 million.

At least two other sections of the King Coal Highway also were displayed on the poster, including a section of the future Interstate 73/74/75 corridor in Williamson in Mingo County, along with a section of the Coalfields Expressway, King Coal Highway Authority Executive Director Mike Mitchem said.

“Absolutely it is a positive,” Mitchem said of the King Coal Highway being included in the governor’s initial transportation budget plan. “Excitement is picking up over it (the project).”

Greg Puckett, a member of the Mercer County Commission who traveled with members of the King Coal Highway Authority to Washington last week, said the interstate corridor is a game changer for southern West Virginia.

“I really feel that our governor understands the importance of infrastructure, and that without it our resources and opportunities are limited,” Puckett said. “Infrastructure is key to the long-term growth of our state. That is now more evident than ever with the King Coal Highway. When you take something like the King Coal Highway, and its ability to unite with other states it really creates an infrastructure that is a game changer. So I think in that aspect we should carry more weight.”

As part of his funding plan for highway projects, Justice has proposed raising the annual license plate decal fee to $50, increasing the West Virginia Turnpike toll by $1 and raising the excise tax on gasoline by 10 cents a gallon, the Associated Press reported Thursday.

Justice also proposed bonding over 15 to 20 years, most of which would require voter approval, as part of a financing plan for 45 different highway projects. Justice estimates that his proposed transportation plan will create 48,000 construction jobs for the state.

But such a bonding plan likely wouldn’t apply to the Mercer County section of the King Coal Highway, since it is already included in the state’s six-year highway plan, Mitchem said.

“I wouldn’t perceive that — Mercer County being connected to bonding,” Mitchem said. “It is in the state plan already for Mercer County.”

But other sections of the roadway, including the segment planned for Williamson, could fall under the governor’s bonding proposal. Still the transportation plan, and the governor’s proposed budget, is likely to undergo a number of changes as the legislative session advances.

Delegate Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer, agreed, adding that the Mercer County section of the King Coal Highway shouldn’t be tied to the bonding vision.

“The six-year plan is on my desk,” Gearheart said. “That (the Mercer County segment of the King Coal Highway) is included in the plan. It is scheduled to begin construction in 2019 on the exact segment that was identified. So it is a highway project that is already planned and already funded. And when I say already funded it is already in the stream, so it already has the state money set aside. “

Construction on the King Coal Highway in Mercer County has been stalled since 2007. That was when the last section of the future I-73/74/75 corridor — the Christine West Interstate bridge — was completed. But the bridge, and the interstate corridor, currently comes to an abrupt end near a mountain at Stoney Ridge. That creates confusion for interstate travelers.

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