“Finish It!” – But How?

By Hugh Rogers 

            “Corridor H—Finish It!” say the faded blue stickers on more than a few trucks around here. The stickers are old but the message still lives. In June, Senator Joe Manchin introduced the “Finish the ADHS Act”. ADHS stands for Appalachian Development Highway System, a sixty-year-old concept whose time may have come for the last time.

            In August, the Senator’s bill was folded into the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill passed by the Senate. The eleven states in the ADHS would receive $1.25 billion through that channel—their largest infusion of funding in more than a decade. (Senator Byrd, chief patron of the ADHS, died in 2010.) West Virginia’s share, all earmarked for Corridor H, is $195 million. Only Alabama got more. 

            As we speculate how much highway that would buy, keep in mind that Parsons-to-Davis, though it gets more attention, is not the only piece left undone. 6.8 miles from Wardensville to the Virginia state line is the missing link on the east. 

            The Settlement Agreement we signed in Corridor H Alternatives et al. v. Slater (2000) put off construction there for twenty years to give Wardensville time, plus some funding, to adapt to a bypass. It’s a town, like Davis and Thomas on the other yet-to-be-built segment, that relies on visitors’ business. Now contractors are busy in the area updating old studies of wildlife, wetlands, and cultural resources. The Division of Highways (DOH) 2020 status report predicted design would begin late this year, construction in 2027, and completion by the end of 2030. Total cost: $189 million. 

            Parsons-to-Davis was delayed while the DOH studied alternative routes that would avoid Blackwater Canyon and its historic district. This was the most complicated part of the Agreement. In the end, we had to agree to disagree. The DOH retained the option to revert to the original alignment, and we retained the right to go back to court if they did. 

            Those studies were not fruitless. Public sentiment is coalescing around one alternative that would bypass Thomas on the west and north, joining the completed section just outside Davis. It would save the Canyon’s historic and natural features and preserve both towns’ charm as they grow. Those who have been impatient to “finish it!” realize that if the DOH persists in pushing the original route, the highway would be delayed more years by litigation. 

            Currently, anticipated dates for design, construction, and completion to Davis are each four years later than the Wardensville segment—that is, 2025, 2031, and 2034. It will be longer (9.2 miles for the “preferred alternative”) and more difficult. DOH predicts it will cost $38 million per mile, exceeding the Wardensville to Virginia figure by more than $10 million per mile. Estimated total cost is $350 million.

            While those sections wait, construction is underway from Kerens to Parsons. Another chunk of funding will be required to complete that before the highway can begin to climb Great North Mountain to the Virginia state line or Backbone Mountain toward Davis. 

            Altogether, Kerens-Parsons, Parsons-Davis, and Wardensville-Virginia add up to 31 miles. The estimated “total remaining cost to complete” them is $1.1 billion.

            When Senator Byrd chaired the Appropriations Committee, many West Virginians got the impression he’d been given a magic wand to wave at the U.S. Treasury. He did his best to disabuse them. “No one appreciates how hard it is to get that money for our state,” he said. For instance, he explained how funding for long-term projects, doled out year by year, requires approval in annual appropriations legislation. Initial commitments must be defended down the road. 

            This background may relieve readers who saw news of an apparent windfall for the Corridor. The threat to Davis, Thomas, and Blackwater Canyon is not imminent, though it remains real. The DOH still intends to build a huge bridge over the Coketon area and run the four-lane directly between the two towns. 

            As it updates old environmental studies, the DOH has promised to account for “changes in the project area.” Taking that seriously, and respecting the Canyon’s importance, would lead the agency to pick the better route. Blowing them off, as it did in the mid-90’s, would have legal consequences—again.