The biggest investment in highways in several decades is happening throughout the state of West Virginia.
West Virginia citizens last fall voted overwhelmingly in favor of the Roads to Prosperity amendment, authorizing the sale of $1.6 billion in bonds to finance hundreds of roads projects that will impact the state for many decades to come. Other bonds will be sold using West Virginia Turnpike revenue.
“This is a huge step forward in our $2 billion-plus program that is going to absolutely transform West Virginia,” Gov. Jim Justice said upon completion of a bond sale in May. “The benefits from this are tremendous — all kinds of construction jobs now, and then long-term economic gains from improved roads and bridges.”
Seventy-three percent of voters in West Virginia supported the bond amendment in an October 2017 special election, with 27 percent voting no.
By April 2018, orange barrels began to appear on highways throughout the state.
“The highway bonds are a good jump-start for West Virginia’s economy,” said Brooks McCabe, a long-time commercial and investment real estate broker, former state senator and current Public Service Commission member. “It’s a defining time and an opportune time to provide the quality of life we all want to see.”
The Mountain State is poised to take advantage of improved connections to the rest of America.
“Our interstates connect us with the rest of the country,” said Jimmy Wriston, chief transportation engineer for the West Virginia Department of Transportation. “West Virginia is positioned perfectly, within 500 miles of 65 percent of the U.S. population. A modern interstate system, corridor system and highways system is important in moving people and goods to the population centers.”
Wriston said the former Silver Bridge at Point Pleasant, which opened in 1928 and collapsed in 1967, was once referred to as a “Gateway to the South” on Route 35, as it connected Ohio and West Virginia. It was replaced by the Silver Memorial Bridge in 1969.
But roads like Route 35 proved insufficient for the expansive growth to come.
“President [Dwight] Eisenhower saw the importance of having modern interstate highways,” Wriston said. “It affects every aspect of our economy, even the way you think in everyday life — the way you move around.”
Construction of the New River Gorge Bridge on U.S. 19 is a prime example of how an area can benefit from road improvements, Wriston said.
“You can take Summersville, along Corridor L between Fayetteville and Morgantown,” he said. “Before the bridge, it took 40 minutes to travel through the narrow, winding road at the gorge if you were heading to Morgantown (from the south) for a football game. But with the bridge, you can zip right across in 40 seconds and be well on your way.”
At 876 feet above the water, the New River Gorge Bridge is one of the highest vehicular bridges in the world. At the time of its completion in 1977, it was the world’s longest single span arch bridge in the world. It is now the fourth longest, eclipsed by three bridges built in China over the last 15 years. Its opening marked the completion of Corridor L of the Appalachian Development Highway System.
Tourism in Fayette County exploded in the aftermath, with better access to the area.
More whitewater rafting companies began springing up around Fayetteville and have expanded to offer many other outdoor activities. The area has seen between 150,000 and 250,000 rafters annually.
“It’s exploded there,” Wriston said of the New River Gorge. “It’s connected to the world now.”
The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 created the beginnings of the nation’s interstate highway system. That act authorized “a 41,000-mile ‘National System of Interstate and Defense Highways’ that would, according to Eisenhower, eliminate unsafe roads, inefficient routes, traffic jams and all of the other things that got in the way of ‘speedy, safe transcontinental travel,’” says History.com. Choosing the routes of interstate highways, especially in rugged West Virginia, was a complex project, Wriston said.
An example is Interstate 64 between Huntington and Charleston — West Virginia’s two largest cities 50 miles apart west to east at nearly exactly the same latitude, with several smaller cities along the way.
“It’s a very technical process, especially at the time [I-64] was planned and built,” Wriston explained. “But they looked at topography, and weighed that. They looked at shortest distances, and looked at grades, steepness and costs. They put those things into a matrix and looked at all those things. Then, they came up with alternatives, based on some weighted engineering factors.”
The “political machine” usually gets involved and pushes the factors to one site or another, Wriston added.
The city of Beckley may have been a beneficiary of changes to original intentions for I-64, Wriston suggested, as it moved closer to the county seat of Raleigh County than planned.
“Harper Road looked very different before the interstate went through there,” Wriston said of the most prominent Beckley interstate exchange, which also hosts Tamarack, a visitor’s center which markets handmade goods from West Virginia artists.
In another example, Barboursville benefited when Huntington officials balked at the interstate coming through and disrupting its city, Wriston said.
“One might wonder how different those cities would be today,” he added.
The future is promising, but it’s not too far down the road, Wriston said.“We’re living the future now,” he stated. “It’s an exciting time to be a transportation professional. To actually have the level of funding at our fingertips to be able to — instead of just playing catch-up all the time, from one season to the next — to actually be able to build for the future and invest in it.”
Corridor H is already changing traffic patterns in the northeastern part of West Virginia, Wriston explained.
“We’ve completed almost all of our corridors, except for Corridor H,” Wriston said. “Once it is complete, it will help Interstate 81. That area will boom too, at some point. It will be a panhandle area on steroids. It will funnel some of that [I-81] north-south traffic back through West Virginia on I-79.”
New roads in the southern part of the state will help economically hard-hit areas too, Wriston projects.
“The Coalfields Expressway will go all the way to Mullens,” he explained. “Another section in Wyoming County, a prison lured the highway into that area. And it created a bunch of jobs. It will get Route 16 connected and be more useful for people.”
In attracting new businesses to locate in West Virginia, a solid road system and infrastructure is always at the top of the list.
“The bottom line is, if you’re a business, you have to find a way to get your product to market,” Wriston said. “Highways are most reliable. Highways are stable, and you can use them forever, as long as you maintain them.”
Upon completion of all the work planned in the current Roads to Prosperity project, change will be evident, Wriston said.
“There’s no question, there will be a noticeable difference,” he said. “We have been so behind, but [Roads to Prosperity] will jump-start us. We will see even more opportunities come from it. When folks travel through an area, the first thing they notice is the roads. Then they look at schools, shopping centers, quality of life and expenses. But roads make the first impact.
“When you cross a state line, it makes an impression.”
Choosing routes makes a significant impact on an area for many generations.“That’s land-use planning,” McCabe explained. “No one wants these big projects in their backyard. But at the same time, thoughtful discussions on where it should be placed, how it should happen, planning the ancillary infrastructure you need around it, makes a huge difference.
“In Charleston, one of the big debates was whether the interstate was going to go through the city. The other debate, was it going to be on a grade or is it going to be elevated? Those were big fights.”
McCabe pointed out that the part of the interstate that is elevated, underneath sat vacant for many years.
“Now, the city is finding uses for it and it’s valuable real estate,” he said. “All of these things make a difference.”
There was fallout from the decision to build through the middle of Charleston, however.
“Urban Renewal and the highway basically decimated the minority communities in Charleston,” McCabe said. “There wasn’t proper funding and planning to relocate and keep those communities sustainable. We are dealing with the ramifications from that 30 years later.”
The highway placement through Charleston proved to be an economic driver however.
The bridge through Charleston on I-64 now drops travelers straight into the Charleston Civic Center, which received major renovations in the early 1980s and is currently undergoing nearly $100 million in improvements. Next door is the Charleston Town Center, which at the time of its opening in 1983 was one of the largest enclosed malls in the nation with nearly one million square feet of retail space.
Several hotels have been built around both structures.
Corridor G development drew even more people to the Charleston area, typically from Logan, Boone and Lincoln counties.
“[Corridor G] changed the dynamics of those communities,” McCabe said. “At the time, some people wondered about ‘the highway that left Charleston and went to nowhere.’”
But the area exploded in retail and commercial space.
“[The towns of] Madison and Danville have had a hard time recovering from the development at Southridge,” said McCabe. “Things change, with some communities benefiting more than others. But the key is to try to balance it in a way that minimizes the hurt and maximizes the gain.”
The benefit of hindsight is valuable for future projects, McCabe added.
“Huntington debated the issues just as hard as Charleston,” he said. “They just made a different conclusion.”
The King Coal Highway and Coalfields Expressway in southern West Virginia has an opportunity to use a significant portion of reclaimed surface areas, McCabe added. Possibilities exist to build recreational facilities, capitalizing on the success of the Hatfield-McCoy off-road trail system.
“What else can be added there to help bring a more sustainable economy?” McCabe said. “That’s a critical component. It is a precursor to future development. The challenge is to make the future development as productive and helpful as possible, in a sustainable way that can preserve one of the highest qualities of life in the eastern United States. We need to accentuate that with a significant increase in infrastructure.”
“We have enough experience to realize the impact of highway construction,” said McCabe. “We should pay more attention on how to manage the future growth, measuring the pros and cons.”