Grab a mug of coffee/ hot apple cider and read this.. http://sundaygazettemail.com/News/200909200356#
September 20, 2009
After 40 years, Corridor H reaches its halfway point
By Rick Steelhammer
MOOREFIELD, W.Va. -- Despite construction costs that have more than doubled, a construction-halting lawsuit and a barrage of criticism from environmentalists, media pundits and government spending watchdog groups, Appalachian Corridor H has finally made it to the halfway point.
While facing new funding challenges, its backers are confident that strong public and political support for the highway will eventually allow them, or at least their children, to travel the 133-mile freeway through West Virginia's Allegheny Highlands swiftly and safely.
The recent opening of a 7.5-mile stretch of the freeway east of the new South Branch Bridge put Corridor H -- the last, longest and costliest of six Appalachian Highway Development System highways to be built in West Virginia -- past the midpoint point in terms of completed mileage. Sixty-six miles of the corridor are now open to traffic, including a 20-mile stretch from Wardensville to Moorefield in Hardy County, and a 43-mile section from Weston in Lewis County to Kerens in Randolph County. An isolated three-mile segment east of Forman is also complete and open.
Authorized by Congress in 1965, Corridor H's roots extend back to the 1930s. It was then that Benton MacKaye, the wilderness advocate and regional planner credited with creating the Appalachian Trail, mapped out a network of proposed scenic highways designed to bring tourism and economic development to Appalachia.
In the mid-1960s, the newly formed Appalachian Regional Commission borrowed MacKaye's vision, blended in some updated insights, and charted out 13 planned developmental highways across the mountainous, isolated, economically depressed section of America.
Today, the Appalachian Highway Development System, expanded to include 32 four-lane corridors covering 3,090 miles in 13 states, is 86 percent complete. Only the most expensive sections of four-lane through the most challenging terrain still await construction to complete the system.One of those sections begins just west of the recently completed $31 million bridge carrying Appalachian Corridor H over the South Branch of the Potomac River at Moorefield.
Here, heavy equipment is carving a path toward a gap in Patterson Creek Mountain and even higher ridges in the Allegheny Mountains on the way to the Grant County communities of Forman, Scherr and Mount Storm. Freeway construction in such terrain can cost upward of $20 million a mile.
Spending on the 133-mile freeway, authorized by Congress in 1965, was expected to reach about $841 million when construction began. But at its midpoint, the project has already surpassed the $1 billion mark, and at least another $1 billion more will be needed to finish the job, according to Department of Transportation Secretary Paul Mattox. While construction activity on Corridor H has never been busier than it is now, recent cuts in highway construction funding dollars channeled to the Appalachian Regional Commission have set back Corridor H's projected completion date from 2020 to 2035
In 1984, the project was put on hold due to funding issues, and not resurrected until 1990. Lawsuits over environmental and historic preservation concerns brought development to a halt again in 1998, but a settlement in 1999 allowed construction to resume on a segment-by-segment basis starting in 2000.
"Building this road has been a trying experience," Senate Finance Chairman Walt Helmick, D-Pocahontas, told a group of Corridor H supporters in Petersburg last week, after recounting delays caused by early routing battles. "We've been talking about it since the '60s, but now it's time to complete it."
Helmick said the fact that the corridor is solidly supported by the governor, the state's congressional delegation and all state senators and delegates in the counties through which it passes will be a major factor in seeing it completed.
"Corridor H is my transportation crusade," Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., said last week, after adding an extra $4.5 million for Corridor H construction to the 2010 transportation appropriations bill. "The people have been waiting for this system for 45 years, which is far too long. Finish it!"
"Corridor H will open up our Mountain State to more robust travel, and as a result, new growth and employment, exciting opportunities for our tourism industry and an overall stronger economy," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.
Byrd and Rockefeller, along with other Appalachian senators, have introduced legislation to reauthorize funding for the Appalachian Development Highway System for an additional five years.
Corridor H, which connects Interstate 79 at Weston to a planned link with Interstate 81 near Strasburg, Va., has been dubbed the "Road to Nowhere" by critics who point to the lack of major cities along the route and object to its multibillion-dollar cost.
It's a road to nowhere only if you consider Cincinnati or Washington, D.C., to be insignificant, according to Guy Land, chief of staff for the Appalachian Regional Commission.
"Corridor H was designed for economic development, not to relieve traffic congestion, although increased traffic will come later," said Land. While Elkins may be the biggest West Virginia city along its route, Corridor H was designed to provide a new four-lane route through West Virginia, connecting the state to Cincinnati in the west and Washington-Baltimore in the east, by linking to existing freeways, he said.
While the midsection of the route remains unbuilt, having a 43-mile stretch open between I-79 at Weston and Kerens, north of Elkins, has already had a marked effect on tourism, bringing an increased number of visitors from Ohio and the Midwest to Randolph County and Canaan Valley. The 20-mile stretch open between Wardensville and Moorefield is also bringing in more people.
"Our northern Virginia visitors have already discovered that section of Corridor H and they are using it," said Bill Smith of the Tucker County Convention and Visitors Bureau. "That new section of highway gets people out of the valleys and up on the ridges, opening up beautiful new vistas of West Virginia. It really compliments the state."
Having the eastern end of the corridor built all the way to Davis, expected to take place in 2017, "will allow us to capture a day-trip market from the Washington-Baltimore area," said Canaan Valley Resort director Dave Bostic. "We're a long way from major cities and travel time for our visitors is our biggest obstacle."
Trimming the travel time from Washington-Baltimore by an hour, as the new road is expected to do, "will make a big difference for us," Bostic said.
Opening the section of Corridor H from Wardensville to Moorefield "has already made a big difference," said Dale Walker of Fort Seybert, president of the West Virginia Poultry Association. In addition to boosting tourist traffic, it has helped area poultry producers reduce transportation costs and improve safety, Walker said.
"Years ago, USA Today rated old Route 55 as one of the 20 deadliest highways in America," said Grant County Bank vice president Gerald Sites of Petersburg. "This new road is a lot safer, and it will help our industries ship their products and get supplies more efficiently. The new highway will enhance our chances of attracting new businesses and stabilize our existing ones."
Currently, construction activity on the corridor is focused on its eastern end, where work is underway on 23 miles of freeway between Moorefield and Bismark in Grant County. Nineteen more miles are in the final design stage, with construction expected to begin next year."By the end of next year, Corridor H will be open from Wardensville to Forman in Grant County, and in three more years, it will be open all the way to Mount Storm," according to State Highway Engineer Marvin Murphy.
Murphy said the 15-mile stretch of highway between Kerens and Parsons will probably be the next to last section, since a considerable amount of environmental mitigation is expected as the highway passes through a section of the Monongahela National Forest.
The last section expected to open is the 6.5-mile stretch extending eastward from Wardensville to the Virginia line.
Virginia transportation officials currently have no plans to tie into the freeway. But that could change when traffic volume increases on two-lane Virginia roads across the border from Wardensville as Corridor H grows, said Phyllis Cole of the Corridor H Coalition. "We're starting to get support for Corridor H from people in the Winchester area," said Cole.
The road could end up carrying a large number of non-tourism visitors from the Washington, D.C., area into West Virginia, according to Homeland Security Director James Spears.
"If someone sets off a dirty bomb or some other type of terrorist attack, we will need Corridor H as an evacuation route from Washington, D.C., " Spears said. "If just 10 percent of the people in the Washington area decide to evacuate and move west, that's 500,000 to 700,000 people heading toward West Virginia."
The role Corridor H could play in accommodating an evacuation and providing a re-supply pipeline in the event of a terrorist attack could make it eligible for designation as a National Defense Highway, according to Spears. "We need to try to get that designation," he said. "It would give Corridor H the same funding status as an interstate highway."
Dan Hodge, principal economist for HDR Decision Economics of Cambridge, Mass., said a recently completed economic analysis of the entire Appalachian Regional Highway system shows that the road will return $3 to the national economy for every $1 spent on its construction. By 2035, when the entire system is expected to be open, the ARC highways will have a total economic impact of $10 billion a year.
"It's already benefiting existing manufacturers and the tourism industry by improving access to and from the Washington-Baltimore area, reducing shipping costs and improving safety," Hedge said.
"We've already seen the benefits of the completed portions of Corridor H," said Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va. "Those opportunities will only grow with the full completion of the highway. This highway has been held up long enough. Simply put, it's time to see this project completed."