GRUNDY, Va. -- The Coalfields Expressway is an unnecessary highway being built solely to benefit the coal industry, the Sierra Club charges in a report declaring it one of the nation's 50 worst transportation projects.
The $2.1 billion road would run from Pound in Wise County through Dickinson and Buchanan counties in Virginia to Raleigh County in West Virginia. In a recent report, the Sierra Club said it's being built "for the express purpose of fossil fuel development" and allows companies to operate with minimal permitting as they scoop out coal and prepare the road bed.
Nor does the highway's price tag include the hidden environmental and human health costs of mountaintop removal mining, the Sierra Club says. The form of strip mining flat-tops mountains as workers blast apart the ridge tops to expose multiple seams of coal, then dump the resulting rubble and debris into valleys and streams below.
There isn't any need for the four-lane highway, either, the Sierra Club contends.
"Although the Coalfields Expressway is touted as an economic development activity, the region has little traffic demand," the report concludes, "and the road will bypass existing economic centers."
Advocates, however, say U.S. Route 121 will open the region to economic development and could be used by as many as 15,000 vehicles a day by 2035.
"It's like the baseball movie, 'Field of Dreams,'" says state Sen. Phillip Puckett, D-Russell. "If you build a road, people will come."
Virginia Department of Transportation spokeswoman Michelle Earl tells the Bluefield Daily Telegraph that Congress made the expressway a high priority corridor in the national system in 1995.
That action acknowledged the need for a new transportation corridor that would serve a region now served mainly by narrow, rural roads.
Earl said the highway will create tens of thousands of construction jobs over 17 years and could help create opportunity for the tourism, health care and transportation industries by creating a new shipping artery through Appalachia.
But the "synergy" with the coal industry is what makes it possible, she said.
Operators would have mined those reserves, anyway, Earl said. The partnership reduces the construction costs to taxpayers.