A Better Direction for Corridor H

By Hugh Rogers

            Word came in early August that the West Virginia Division of Highways (DOH) was “re-starting” the disputed Parsons-to-Davis section of Corridor H. Questions would be answered at a public meeting at Blackwater Falls State Park on August 20.

            Quick answer to Question No. 1: Still no Record of Decision, i.e., final go-ahead, from the Federal Highway Administration. Apparently, this public event signaled that Division of Highways plans to make another run at that goal. They anticipate beginning final design in 2025, and construction in 2031. Meanwhile, they will update old environmental studies. The so-called Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was issued in 2007. How much of it is obsolete? Delay begets delay. Delay suggests a second look.

            The most interesting phrase in the meeting handout (project history, maps, comment form) was this: “Changes in the project area” will be assessed.  

            There is no doubt that the project area has changed, in part because of the highway itself. Corridor H reached Mt. Storm in 2015, and Davis the following year. In the short time since then, it has brought many more visitors. Repopulation of the towns on the mountain, already begun, has continued. Thomas and Davis are growing toward each other. Old antagonisms are falling away. 

            Residents hope the spirit of cooperation will influence where this final piece is placed. The question being asked up on the mountain was, Will the Corridor work for the good of our communities, or split them apart?

            In that regard, the meeting was a major disappointment. Many who were there asked why the Division of Highways maps showed only one route, the one that plows straight ahead from the four-lane’s temporary end outside Davis, crosses Route 32 between Davis and Thomas, and bridges Blackwater Canyon directly over the historic district.

            In fact, the DOH has studied, and could choose, a better alternative. 

            From the exit onto Route 93 at Davis, that route turns northwest and crosses US 219 north of Thomas, then heads west, meets 219 again near Benbush, and continues parallel to it beyond Tucker County High School. 

            With this alternative, an extra truck route around Thomas is unnecessary. Developable land near Davis is saved. The towns are not separated by a concrete barrier. And Blackwater Canyon is spared. 

            From 2000-2003, several versions of this alternative were studied by the DOH as a “Blackwater Avoidance Alternative,” and three were examined in more detail in a supplemental Environmental Impact Statement. Blackwater Canyon had been a major issue when plaintiffs including the Highlands Conservancy successfully sued over the entire alignment between Elkins and the Virginia line. 

            However, sixteen years ago the two towns on the mountain could not agree on the “Avoidance” option. Davis supported the DOH’s preferred route. By the terms of the settlement agreement, DOH could revert to its original plan, and the plaintiffs could resume their lawsuit. That has been the standoff ever since. 

            As it re-starts the project, Division of Highways should re-consider the alternatives. Yes, they are somewhat longer and therefore more expensive. Doing the job right costs more. After the millions and millions spent, far in excess of actual transportation needs, it would be absurd to cut corners now at the expense of the community’s landscape and historic attractions. If the purpose of Corridor H is, as they say, “Promoting economic development and preserving or improving the quality of life in the region,” DOH has a better way to accomplish that.

            Twenty years ago, the National Register of Historic Places, an office of the National Park Service, determined that the Blackwater Industrial Complex deserved that honor. By law, places on the Register are protected from disturbance by federally-financed projects such as Corridor H. The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation said that a four-lane bridge would affect the Blackwater property in just the way the law forbids. Nevertheless, the DOH wants to claim that moving the piers of the bridge so they don’t step on any structures is enough to avoid all prohibited effects. It’s hard to believe they would test this in court, especially after losing Round One. 

            We haven’t addressed the route below Tucker County High School, where the Corridor descends Backbone Mountain. That segment is for engineers to argue over—and they do. The name of the watershed it will encounter, Slip Hill Mill Run, can give you an idea. 

            In sum, we’re making these points to DOH and everyone in Davis and Thomas: 

  • No route has been designed yet (final design won’t begin until 2025)
  • A better alternative has been studied already
  • No delay if we choose the better alternative
  • Court proceedings would delay any route across Blackwater Canyon 

            You can help! Comments are due by September 20. 

            Tell WVDOH: Choose a Blackwater Avoidance alternative.

  • To submit online:  go.wv.gov/dotcomment. Under “Public Comments,” click                   “Corridor H – Parsons to Davis,” then under “Comment,” click “Online.”
  • To submit by mail:  R.J. Scites, Director, Engineering Division, WVDOH
    • 1334 Smith St., Charleston WV 25301