Corridor H for Dummies

By John McFerrin

Corridor H has been around as a proposal since the Johnson (Lyndon, not Andrew) administration and as a controversy for almost that long. For what seems like forever, it has been around, lying there doing nothing for much of the time, flaring up as a controversy from time to time.

Now it is flaring up again. There are many of us (including me) who have not paid much attention, don’t remember the Johnson administration, or may never have known some of the basic facts about it. To fill in some of the gaps, here are some basic facts:

What is it?

Corridor H is a proposed four lane highway that would run from Interstate 79 around Weston to Interstate 81 in Virginia.

Why does it have a letter for a name instead of a number like normal roads?

It has a letter because it is a part of the Appalachian Development Highway System. The Appalachian Development Highway System was an effort to improve the economy of Appalachia by upgrading roads throughout the region. The idea was, as Senator Robert Byrd used to say, that “the waters of prosperity flow down rivers of concrete.” For the most part they take existing roads and make them four lanes.

Region wide, the lettered corridors use up most of the alphabet.  West Virginia has five corridors: (1) Corridor E, also known as I-68 from Morgantown east into Maryland; (2) Corridor L, running from I-79 around Sutton to I-64 near Beckley; (3) Corridor D, running from Bridgeport to Parkersburg and over into Ohio; (4) Corridor G, running from Charleston down to Williamson and then into Kentucky; and (5) Corridor H.

The completed sections do have numbers, just like normal roads. With the exception of Corridor G, most people call them by their numbers, not their letters. Corridor H is designated as US 48.

Is it almost finished?

Much of it is finished. The section from Kerens to Parsons has been under construction for a few years.  A 10-mile section from Parsons to Davis as well as a shorter section near the Virginia line are being studied. Virginia has no plan to build its section of Corridor H from the state line to I-81.

Why is it not yet finished?

Mostly it is about money. Because of the terrain, it is an expensive highway to build. Contrary to popular belief, Senator Byrd could not wave his magic money wand and allow West Virginia to back a truck up to the United States treasury and take whatever money it wanted. It is a long, hard task to appropriate enough money for a road that expensive.

It is also partly because building it may not be such a good idea. In Fighting to Protect the Highlands: The First Forty Years of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, David Elkinton describes it this way: “In essence, the Conservancy questioned the basic need for a controlled-access four-lane highway, preferring instead an upgrade of existing U.S. Route 33, U.S. Route 50, and other feeder routes.” He was describing our position in 1974; it hasn’t changed. Indeed, our affiliated group Corridor H Alternatives has the same idea in its name and shares this view.

There was also a study several years ago which concluded that Corridor H was the most difficult of the Appalachian Development Highway System to justify economically.

Why is there a current controversy?

Also money. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act which passed in late 2021 provided money for roads. A large chunk was earmarked to complete the remaining gaps in the Appalachian Development Highway System, primarily in West Virginia and Alabama. What had languished on the drawing board for the last few years now has some of the funding it needs to go ahead. What had been an abstract debate about routing, one that many people assumed had been settled years ago, is now real.

What is the current controversy all about?

The West Virginia Department of Transportation was in charge of picking the route that Corridor H would take. Over twenty years ago it considered various alternatives. For the unfinished section near Thomas/Davis the route it selected includes a bridge across Blackwater Canyon and a four lane road that splits Davis and Thomas. Even though decades have passed, it has not changed its mind.

The route was a controversial one at the time and remains controversial. Many have suggested a better route that loops north of Davis and Thomas and avoids Blackwater Canyon and its National Register-eligible historic district.