West Virginia Finds Road to Heaven Costs $10M a Mile

Good things come to those who wait. For West Virginia, it’s been a long wait, but good things are finally starting to happen. And one of those is a four-lane highway known as Corridor H.

In the 1960’s, the Appalachian Regional Commission proposed the development of 26 highway corridors from Mississippi to New York to encourage economic and social development throughout the region. So far, about 75 percent of the corridors are complete.

Corridor H is the last corridor in West Virginia to be completed. Beginning in the central part of the state at Weston near I-79, the tentative route of Corridor H stretches 225 kilometers (140 mi.) westward to the Virginia border. When finally completed, the Corridor will connect to Virginia State Route 55, which then connects to I-81 and I-66, providing a shorter, safer route to Washington, D.C., as well as other destinations north and south along I-81.

Currently, only 64 kilometers (40 mi.) from Weston to Elkins are complete. Completion of the remaining 161 kilometers (100 mi.) from Elkins to the Virginia state line will be a formidable task. The rugged West Virginia terrain pushes four-lane highway construction costs beyond $10 million a mile. The final price tag for the entire Corridor will be well over $1 billion.

But mountains are not the only obstacles to the Corridor’s completion. Environmentalists have expressed concern about disturbance of one of the most unique areas in the eastern United States, the Potomac Highlands. The scenic and sparsely populated region also is a mecca for outdoor sports enthusiasts. Snow skiing, whitewater rafting, mountain biking and hiking are just some of the activities that lure tourists. The completion of the four-lane highway promises easier access from nearby metropolitan areas — a potential boon to resort developers, and a bane to environmental purists who worry about the impact on what they see as a fragile environment.

In 1996, environmental and public interest groups filed a lawsuit alleging that the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) violated federal regulations in evaluating the highway’s impact on the environment. So far, the courts have ruled in favor of the FHWA and the project has only been slowed, not halted. Stream and wetland mitigation issues have, for the most part, already been resolved. Only studies of the historic and cultural impact of the Corridor remain to be completed.

Of the 161 kilometers (100 mi.) of highway yet to be completed, only 14.8 kilometers (9.2 mi.), worth more than $119 million, are under contract for construction. Of that, about 8 kilometers (5 mi.) are on hold, pending completion of court-ordered studies.

The 6.8 kilometers (4.2 mi.) currently under construction was let in four contracts. Vecellio and Grogan, a Beckley, WV-based contractor, is constructing 2.7 kilometers (1.6 mi.) at a cost of $19.7 million. The Trumbell Corporation of Pittsburgh is responsible for another 1.2 kilometers (.8 mi.) at a cost of $16.3 million. J.F. Allen of nearby Buckhannon, WV, has a contract for 2 kilometers (1.3 mi.) at a cost of $21.3 million, and Fairfax Trucking of Elkins, WV, has the final 2.4 kilometers (1.5 mi.) costing more than $17.2 million, however, only a small portion of that contract has been allowed to go forward.

A virtual army of heavy equipment, both rented and owned, is required to move the millions of cubic meters of earth and rock for the project. Excavators, loaders, hoes, dozers, and pan loaders are everywhere. Caterpillar 777s seem to be the truck of choice.

You can’t build a highway in West Virginia without needing a few bridges. In the 6.8 kilometers (4.2 mi.) of Corridor H now under construction, there are three major bridges. Before the entire Corridor is finished, there will be many more.

So far, there have not been many major problems encountered during construction, although the underlying geology has provided a couple of surprises. At one location, a clay layer proved to be more plastic than anticipated, and has caused problems with slope stability. At other locations, the angle of layering of shale deposits (known to geologists as strike and dip) also has played havoc with slope stability, as the layers slide downhill when exposed in roadway cuts.

All four contracts are ahead of schedule but the severe winters of the area (Elkins occasionally records the lowest temperature in the country) will slow progress for a few months. Meanwhile, there is reason to believe that the legal battles are near an end. A tentative settlement in the lawsuit seems to be forthcoming, which could clear the way for more design and construction. Even so, it will be years before the entire Corridor will be complete.

If patience is a virtue, West Virginians must be a very virtuous people. They have little choice. The pace of progress in the mountain state is slow and deliberate. But good things do come to those who wait.

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