While President Trump pushes for a brand new wall to separate the Mexican and U.S. border that could cost as much as $1 billion, residents in coal country are hoping the President will fund an infrastructure project more than 27 years in the making. The Coalfields Expressway broke ground back in 2000, but Executive Director of the Coalfields Expressway Authority, Richard Browning, says the idea for the road goes back as far as the late 60’s when the road was called the Beckley to Grundy road.
“The state people didn’t come here and say, ‘We want you all to have a road.’” Browning said. “This was a grassroots effort born right here in Wyoming County.”
The four-lane highway project, “The Coalfields Expressway,” has all the right components — or hot button political catchphrases — that now President Donald Trump thumped on his campaign trail.
Infrastructure. Jobs. Coal.
“If you build a highway on top of the coal seam, you’re going to have to sterilize that coal so whoever owns it you have to pay them for it anyway,” Browning explained. “So what we found out is, if we allow contractors and coal companies to work together to maximize the extraction, the coal itself can greatly reduce the cost of building the road.”
In West Virginia, the paved section of the Coalfields Expressway starts in Raleigh County near Beckley in Sophia. It will also run through Wyoming and McDowell Counties and create the first four-lane highway in Wyoming County.
Road construction crews are literally laying the groundwork for a four-lane highway that will traverse the rugged terrain of southern West Virginia. It’s not cheap.
The mountains along the route are blasted, creating small enough pieces to move. Two spreads work to move the earth. A “spread” is a three-vehicle team — a massive loader, a bulldozer and a dump truck. The dozer sits on top of the blasted earth, pushing mountain inside the end loader, which dumps it into a dozer to be hauled down a winding road and released into a valley. Little by little, ridges and valleys are flattened to build new levels.
All the incidental coal is removed along the way. And, it’s not cheap.
“The terrain in West Virginia is so challenging to build highways on. It’s about anywhere between 18 to 32 million dollars a mile in today’s dollars to build a section of road. So, therefore, we need more money from the feds to do what you can do in other states,” said Browning.
An Appalachian Highway Dream
The road is being built to the standards of the Appalachian Development Highway system- even though it wasn’t included in those routes of the Appalachian Regional Commission.
While the ARC has helped to fund roads across the region, Browning points out that southern West Virginia was neglected when four-lane highway projects were being designed throughout the region over the past 50 years.
“When the interstate system was designed [southern West Virginia] was left out. You can see what’s happened because it was left out. It hasn’t enjoyed the prosperity that other places have enjoyed — the growth and so forth, the diversity of the economy that other places have — because we’ve just been forgotten,” Browning said.
The ARC helps support a variety of successful economic development projects across the Appalachian region, including roads. Browning points to West Virginia towns that have all experienced significant growth: Summersville, Logan, and Elkins, which are home to U.S. 19, U.S. 119, and Corridor H, respectively.
“It’s obvious to the naked eye what can help [towns] is when you get a highway like this,” Browning said.
But support from the ARC might not even be an option if President Trump has his way. In March, Trump proposed to completely eliminate the agency.
“This section of the country, not just southern West Virginia but south western Virginia, Southern Pennsylvania, eastern Kentucky — this whole area has been the energy supplier for this whole nation since coal was discovered.
“We went through the industrial revolution building all of the skyscrapers all around this country with steel that was made because they had Appalachian coal to fire the furnaces.”
“So now coal is taboo. Our industry is gone for several reasons, not just the EPA, not just the Marcellus gas, or because the world energy market has changed, but for whatever the reason — we need help.
“There’s no better place than here to show what the feds can do if they want to help diversify our economy.”
Road to Desperately Needed Economic Development?
Coal jobs have been declining for decades. But since 2012, West Virginia went from having 23,000 mining jobs to 11,000. Most of these losses have been in southern West Virginia. West Virginia University economists say in five southern counties in particular, the non-diversified economy has created financial challenges. The situation is so bad, economists compare today’s economy to the Great Depression of the 1930s.
And even before the latest decline, a Marshall University study conducted more than 10 years ago found that the Coalfields Expressway would help create a better economy for the region.
Talk about the road coming to towns like Pineville has lingered for so long, some residents think it’s just empty promises.
“There is cynicism, of course. There’s probably a word for this but, it’s like, we’re cynical and hopeful at the same time,” said Wyoming County Circuit Clerk David “Bugs” Stover. “No one will be stunned if it doesn’t ever get here. But, we won’t be shocked if it does.”
For many here in southern West Virginia, continued construction of the Coalfields Expressway, couldn’t come at a better time for the region. According to the job superintendent about 90% of the construction workers are from West Virginia.
“The road is our ticket to diversification,” Browning said. “You can’t do anything if you can’t get your goods and materials in or out of the area.”
“We need this road finished— and I almost said, or we’re finished, but we’re not,” Stover said. “We’ll be here when your grandkids come back, but how well we’re doing here is what’s at stake here. We need the highway built here.”
While the state of West Virginia tries to figure out how they’re going to move out of a budget crisis, some in the region are hoping that President Trump will remember a state that supported so heavily in November’s election.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said the Trump administration would unveil a $1 trillion infrastructure plan later this year. But, it’s not clear if projects like the Coalfields Expressway will be included, as there were not specific details on infrastructure projects or the amount of funding to come.
Jessica Lilly (@JessicaYLilly) is the host West Virginia Public Brodcasting’s ‘Inside Appalachia.’ A lifetime resident of southern West Virginia, Jessica hails from Mullens in Wyoming County.