West Virginia is on the threshold of a golden economic opportunity that could not only insulate the state to downward recessionary forces but also reorder its manufacturing base for generations to come.
The key is a public-private partnership centered on finally building the extension of Interstate 68 west from Morgantown to I-470 in Wheeling in a manner that will optimize industrial development in the heart of the Marcellus and Utica Shale natural gas fields.
Unlike traditional highway construction methods, this project would be designed with industrial planners to incorporate a series of parallel utility corridors that would include midstream natural gas pipelines and associated liquid headers, as well as high-speed fiber-optic cables.
The lateral lines perpendicular to the utility corridors would supply new business and industrial parks along the route that would be constructed in cooperation with highway contractors utilizing the highly efficient cut-and-fill process that yields significantly more flat land for site preparation.
The multiple economies associated with these enhanced land developments would be highly desirable for downstream manufacturers, especially those associated with the proposed multi-billion-dollar PTT Global Chemical ethane cracker to be located just across the Ohio River from Moundsville.
However, Marshall County’s massive Blue Racer natural gas cryogenic and fractionation processing plant, with its 700-mile “super system” of Utica Shale gathering pipelines, could alone serve as an existing anchor for future industrial development in the region.
So, too, for MarkWest’s sprawling Majorsville processing complex and the Williams Company Moundsville fractionation plant that, together, represent billions of dollars of completed capital investment in the county.
The extension of I-68 on the Morgantown side of the project could also be built to accelerate existing plans for a four-lane connector from the Mon Fayette Expressway, in eastern Monongalia County, to a new exit on I-79 north of Star City.
Transportation planners believe that routing the so-called I-268 beltway through the northernmost portion of the county will open up vast tracts of land for planned development, as well as help relieve existing traffic congestion throughout the entire city.
Given the construction of the Mon County Ballpark in the University Town Center, northwest of the Evansdale Campus, and the new WVU aquatics center and track and field complex, farther west of I-79 in Mylan Park, underscores the development pattern.
Nascent plans for a WVU football stadium in the vicinity would also be enhanced by routing I-68 west from the I-268 beltway, especially given the construction of a new connector from the recently completed exit on I-79 in Granville to Mylan Park.
The need for expanding I-68 to the Ohio Valley was recognized years ago, and long before the Marcellus and Utica shale fields were discovered.
In fact, in 2003, the Federal Highway Administration formally authorized the extension’s incorporation into the Interstate Highway System, paving the way for federal funding based on an 80 percent match of the total highway construction costs.
Using a recent $1 billion estimate for constructing the 70-mile segment of the highway between Morgantown and the Ohio River would result in a $200 million match for West Virginia, which is roughly 4 percent of the state’s total budget for any given year.
And that amount could be reduced further by partnerships that utilize shared resources for land preparation and collocated rights-of-way, as well as bond financing based on toll revenue generated by rerouted tractor-trailer volume from the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
Of course, leveraging the federal match of $800 million would also help reduce the total outlays for the state, as it would generate its own tax revenue while further stimulating the regional economy.
Expanding I-68 to the Northern Panhandle would also create long-term economic synergies by connecting the region’s burgeoning industrial development with the intellectual capital within the I-79 High Technology Corridor anchored by WVU, the High Technology Consortium and the FBI Center.
And should the proposed Appalachian Storage Hub concept come to fruition, a completed I-68, with its shovel-ready, certified development sites, could reposition West Virginia to become a full participant within the Tri-State Shale Crescent USA initiative.