We’ve seen very little progress in recent years when it comes to the construction of the King Coal Highway and the Coalfields Expressway. Both projects remain absolutely critical to the future of southern West Virginia — and Mercer and McDowell counties in particular. Unfortunately, construction on the King Coal Highway has been largely stalled for several years now.
Yes, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin did place the Bluefield segment of the King Coal Highway into the state’s six-year highway improvement schedule late last year, and that will certainly help in terms of expediting construction on the long-stalled Mercer County segment of the future Interstate 73/74/75 corridor. But it could still be several years before we see a resumption of construction in Mercer County. And it will take both state and federal funding support to get the project moving again.
The story has been a little better for the Coalfields Expressway project, which has seen some progress in recent years. The four-lane corridor is now approaching Mullins in Wyoming County, and Coalfields Expressway Authority Executive Director Richard Browning is hoping to see the Mullins section of the project completed by 2018. There is also already a usable segment of the Coalfields Expressway in Raleigh County. However, there is still no usable four-lane highway in McDowell County — just a two-mile unpaved section of the Coalfield Expressway that was completed back in 2001 as part of a coal synergy agreement that was ahead of its time. It remains unusable to date.
Will the change in political power in Washington help in terms of advancing these all-important southern West Virginia four-lane corridors? We certainly hope so. Both U.S. Sen. Shelly-Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins, R-W.Va., have toured the King Coal Highway corridor. They appear to have a clear understanding of the importance of the King Coal Highway and the Coalfields Expressway for southern West Virginia. Jenkins will be in a good position to help key infrastructure improvement projects — such as the King Coal Highway — as a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. Capito, in return, is the only freshman senator to chair an Appropriations subcommittee in the U.S. Senate.
Jenkins and Capito are both members of the new majority party in Congress, so they will be in a better position to help advance projects such as the King Coal Highway and the Coalfields Expressway working in conjunction with U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and other regional lawmakers.
Both Browning and King Coal Highway Authority Executive Director Mike Mitchem say they are optimisic, and hopeful of support for their respective projects from the new Republican majority in Congress. So are we.