By Hugh Rogers
An elected official in Tucker County asked me where I was from. “Randolph County,” I said. “Kerens.” “Off the mountain,” she said. I nodded. Then she told me she’d heard that opposition to Corridor H, beginning years ago, was all from “out of state people.” After letting this sink in, she said, “We think local people should make the decision.”
To a large extent, I agreed. So far, the decisions have been made in Charleston. Highway engineers have calculated volumes of earth to be moved, length in miles, and cost; they have determined environmental constraints such as wetlands, streams, and wildlife habitat. What they have not calculated is the likely impact on local people’s lives.
In the 90’s, acquiescence in their decisions seemed the only way to get the corridor built. But the game has changed, in two ways. First, under a court-approved settlement agreement, the highway will be done but the question remains where. Second, as a result of the bipartisan infrastructure bill, the money is available now. If local people are to make a decision, it must come soon.
Until a month ago, construction on the Parsons-to-Davis section was set to begin in 2031. That date has been moved up to 2024.
Completing a final environmental impact statement, producing a final design, and acquiring right-of-way, which were supposed to take eight or nine years, have been collapsed into two.
Unaccounted for in that timetable is a possible delay. It has to do with the same flaw that led to the Court of Appeals decision more than twenty years ago, and consequently to the settlement agreement: Where a federally-protected historic site stood in their way, the Division of Highways (DOH) simply pretended it wasn’t a problem.
As described in the 2007 environmental impact statement (EIS), the agreement required the DOH “to evaluate alternatives for avoiding the ‘Blackwater Area’ . . . which includes historic and archaeological resources associated with coal and coke production in the Blackwater Valley.”
Choosing one of those alternatives now would put the project in overdrive. Returning to the old “preferred alternative” would bring the fifteen groups who originally sued back to court. Some settlement! Last time around, judicial proceedings took four years. It’s ironic that citizens’ groups who used to be accused of stalling are urging the DOH to choose an alternative that could be built without delay. But who really wants to litigate?
Compare the original alternative with Alternative 1D East, the better alignment for Thomas, Davis, and the “Blackwater Area.” (A Summary of Impacts by Alternative can be found in the 2007 EIS.) Their lengths are nearly the same: 9.9 miles vs. 10 miles. But the “preferred alternative” requires more earthwork, borrow and waste; it affects four and a half times more wetlands, nearly twice as much stream length, and more acres of floodplain and wildlife habitat. It is preferred because of a single factor: cost. Are we surprised that the cheaper solution is more destructive?
Only a cramped, unrealistic definition of cost could ignore those impacts. And what about the impacts of a major barrier between Thomas and Davis? And the visual and audible impacts to the whole Blackwater Area, its trails and views and falls and historic features?
With the infrastructure money, we can afford to do it right.
If, as the official in Tucker County told me, local people want to make the decision, they will feel confident that the northern alternative will solve the decades-old problem of truck traffic on East Avenue, Thomas’s main shopping street. The DOH added a funky “truck route” to their original alternative, but it would be too steep and too close to the school and public library, and it’s hard to find anyone who believes it would be built soon. A major intersection on Route 32 would send the trucks straight into town.
Local people will want assurance that the northern route will not affect the Thomas City Park trails. When that route was first designed, the trails were not complete. A slight adjustment might incorporate the current design’s access to Route 219, and provide a shorter exit ramp.
A well-designed bypass will enhance the experience of the people who want to come here, while allowing those who are just passing through to avoid local traffic. It will not destroy the attractions that have helped to make these mountaintop towns an appealing destination. For local people, it will support the economy and ease their travel around the region, and it won’t cut them in two.