An Unsettled Settlement and One Solution

By Hugh Rogers

           The West Virginia Division of Highways has taken note of local opposition to its Revised Original Preferred Alternative (ROPA) for Corridor H. Recently, it has circulated documents making two points: the 2000 Settlement Agreement allowed it to revert to its original alignment; the alternative routes it studied have various flaws. 

            It is true that the agreement permitted disagreement over the final outcome in the Parsons-to-Davis section. Thus, the lawsuit has only been postponed. Defendants could throw away the alternatives they had designed. Plaintiffs could sue to enforce the federal law protecting a National Register-eligible historic district, the Blackwater Industrial Complex. Let’s look at how it happened.

            The towns of Thomas and Davis and the historic district along the North Fork of the Blackwater River form a rough triangle. Corridor H (US 48) approached from the east, ending just north of Davis. It was planned to continue west beyond Thomas. How should it get there? Could the highway alleviate traffic problems without impinging on the most sensitive areas? 

            Two issues were prominent. The first was to maintain the integrity of the historic site and its surrounding landscape—including Blackwater Falls State Park and Monongahela National Forest—free from the noise, lights, and physical intrusions of 21st Century transportation. The second was the problem of heavy trucks pounding through historic Thomas. They’re hard on streets and buildings, and they threaten the foot traffic the town’s economy depends on. 

            These issues were to be addressed in our Settlement Agreement. The relevant part begins with this requirement: “Federal Highway Administration and West Virginia Department of Transportation will prepare a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement to evaluate one or more alignment shifts for the Thomas-Davis Section of the Parsons-to-Davis Project.” (Emphasis added.)(Here, we refer to WVDOT’s Division of Highways, DOH.)

            From the original twelve possible alignments, six were “retained for detailed environmental study and analysis” in the Draft (2002) and Final (2007) Environmental Impact Statements. All six passed north of Thomas and met US 219 west of town.

            From there, they went downhill—literally and figuratively. DOH tacked onto the different options the same long tail along the side of Backbone Mountain below Tucker County High School. 

            That route was supposed to avoid habitat for the endangered flying squirrel, but it did not. It plowed through “highly suitable” squirrel territory. Now DOH wants to use that flaw and others to handicap the Northern Route around Thomas. It says the alternatives are a mile longer, lack a connector to the high school, cross trout streams, and require giant cuts and side-hill fills in unstable soils. 

            These objections are irrelevant to the Thomas-Davis Section.           

            Some of DOH’s other comparisons between the alternatives and their Revised Original Preferred Alignment are simply false. For instance, “The Northern Alternatives fill over twice the acreage of … forested wetlands.” Only one of the surviving alternatives would fill more of those particular wetlands than the ROPA. In fact, the ROPA would fill six and a half times as much total wetland area as Alternative 1D, our Northern Route.  

            And their comparisons miss the point on likely impacts of the ROPA. They write that tourist access from north, east, and south would not change. What would change is the draw and the experience—if the landscape is blighted; if instead of bringing people to the destination, the highway carries them over it; if an interchange with Route 32 generates the sort of strip mall sprawl between the towns that we see along Corridor G south of Charleston (which DOH cites as positive economic development). 

            The towns on the mountain are different. Davis’s Draft Comprehensive Plan declares its first priority: “Preserve the unique character and integrity of Davis throughout any growth and development that may occur. Protect its existing assets: the natural landscape and rural beauty, dark skies, community centers and parks, the small town atmosphere and safe environment for children.” (Emphasis in original.)

            To address Thomas’s priority, reducing truck traffic through town, DOH has offered a “Truck Route” separate from Corridor H. But its location near the school and library is dubious, its funding is uncertain, and its timing is unknown. It is unnecessary. Corridor H is the real truck bypass. 

            Supposing we cut off the Northern Route’s ill-designed tail—what then? An obvious solution would be to build the route around Thomas to US 219 west of town and improve the existing road from there—at least until a viable route down the mountain can be found. 

            DOH has mentioned karst (limestone) topography as a problem on the Backbone Mountain portion of the northern alternatives. It has not admitted the difficulties it would face with the crumbly Mauch Chunk formation lying under its own ROPA. The least disturbance the better, in that geology. 

            But wasn’t the old Improved Roadway Alternative foreclosed by the Settlement Agreement? No. We did agree not to object in court that their upcoming Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) will not consider that alternative. Nothing prevents us from pointing out to the public and our representatives that an IRA is the best way down the mountain. On that issue, we can’t litigate but we can agitate.   

            What the SEIS must do is comply with the Settlement Agreement and focus on the Thomas-Davis Section. Then it will be clear that the Northern Route around Thomas would best serve the towns and protect the historic Blackwater area.