Putting the Brakes on Corridor H: A Brief History

By Hugh Rogers

In early July, I got a call from a free-lance writer in Michigan. She was doing a piece on Corridor H for a magazine called Construction. Part 1, “52 Years and Counting – Corridor H Continues in West Virginia,” was done. She wanted to interview me for Part 2.

Corridor H opponents used to love publicity. Getting the story out exposed lies and disasters, helped us find allies, slowed the juggernaut a little. Now it’s seventeen years since our settlement agreement; the only unsettled section has been put off another ten years. If I was going to preach to Construction, I knew I wouldn’t be preaching to the choir.

The writer sent me Part 1. Her informant (who had referred her to me) was Marvin Murphy, a Senior Adviser on Corridor H for the West Virginia Department of Transportation. She asked why H was the only one of the six Appalachian Corridor Highways in West Virginia still not completed. Murphy replied: (a) the other routes were shorter, (b) the topography was more difficult, and (c) there were more “major environmental and historical matters” on the route. “Add to this the concerns of active citizen groups both for and against the project, which resulted in considerable litigation and time delays.” Not to mention funding troubles. I could agree with all of it except the odd notion that groups for the project had somehow delayed it.

It’s hard to fit fifty years of controversy into a short article in a trade magazine—or the Voice, for that matter. Dave Elkinton did an excellent job in Chapter 4 of his history of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, Fighting to Protect the Highlands. It took him 25 pages.

The magazine writer sent me five questions to organize our interview. They make the story too personal, but with a few caveats, I’m going to take advantage of that outline. Long before I got involved, the Conservancy had played an important role in this drama. Elkinton points to a meeting in March 1975, when Geoff Green and Lowell Markey presented their study to the staff of Senator Jennings Randolph, then chair of the Public Works and Environment Committee. It strongly influenced the eventual decision to give up the original plan (and six miles of four-lane) heading east out of Elkins, and instead go north through Tucker County.

For years after that, while the Department of Highways learned to do environmental impact studies (EIS), and they were shelved for lack of funding, then revived and redone, discussions within the Conservancy went back and forth between two reasonable positions: no-build or go-north.

In 1992, halfway through the intertwined histories of the Highlands Conservancy and the highway project, I helped to form Corridor H Alternatives from small local groups that had sprung up along the 100-mile proposed route. Four years later, we would become the lead plaintiffs in the lawsuit that led to the settlement agreement. By then, Cindy Rank had recruited me to join the Conservancy board and head the Highways Committee. During the project’s long dormancy, activists had either turned to other issues or retired; when Senator Robert Byrd took over the chair of the Appropriations Committee, all sorts of projects, good and bad, sprang to life and so did a new citizen movement.

Perhaps because we were new on the case, we questioned everything. Begin with “need”. Given the purpose of the Appalachian Development Highway System—“A balanced, integrated, and efficient transportation system is critical to the Region’s future economic success”—how did that translate as “four-lanes everywhere”? It was obvious that current traffic numbers and future estimates did not justify four lanes between Elkins and the Virginia line, and on to I-81. Hence the name, Corridor H Alternatives, and our campaign for an Improved Roadway Alternative.

We had less success with that than Green and Markey did with the northern route, although we did win in Virginia. For the foreseeable future, the thirteen miles of Va. 55 from the state line to I-81, now designated US 48, will remain two lanes.

In the 90’s, national allies and attention helped us with comments on the EIS, and gave us an opportunity to testify before a House of Representatives committee. That experience was most memorable for an appearance by then-Congressman Bob Wise, not a committee member, who was invited by the chair to lambaste us for our impertinence in opposing Senator Byrd. (Wise had once opposed a dam project favored by the Senator, and had been smacked down; he had learned his lesson.) Following that, we were granted an interview with the Senator himself.

We reached our high-water mark, though, in the spring of 1995, when staff scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency gave Corridor H the lowest rating: “environmentally unsatisfactory.” The Regional Director, Peter Kostmayer, a former congressman, had joined us at the Highlands Conservancy Fall Review for a comprehensive discussion of Corridor H and other issues. His job, he told us, was to support his staff and to adopt their findings. How refreshing! But he wouldn’t last long in the Clinton administration. He announced the rating and declared that the highway should not be built. Shortly thereafter, he was fired.

So much for the political arena. The outcome had been foreseeable for twenty years, ever since the Conservancy had led the charge to push the alignment north, and save Seneca Rocks, Dolly Sods, and many other sites and streams. Although that had been politically astute—better half a loaf than none, etc.—the project was still “environmentally unsatisfactory.” The benefits weren’t worth the cost. When the Federal Highway Administration signed a Record of Decision approving federal participation (then 80% of the cost; now it’s 100%), we sued.

The writer for Construction wanted to know if our biggest concerns were addressed in the settlement agreement that came out of the lawsuit. Good question, difficult to answer. As in politics, so in law, you prevail where you have leverage. We had lost in the District Court, and we only won our appeal on an issue that really wasn’t our biggest concern. That was the failure of the Environmental Impact Statement to seriously address the highway’s impact on historic sites. Fortunately, our lawyer, Andrea Ferster, was an expert on the law in this area.

The Court of Appeals, after reviving our case, ordered us to its mediation arm. It might as well have said, “We don’t want to see this mess again. Figure out some accommodation.” So we did, mostly. In our meetings, Andrea and three of us representing the plaintiffs faced off against lawyers and staff representing the U.S. Department of Justice, the Federal Highway Administration, the U.S. Department of Transportation, the West Virginia Department of Transportation, the West Virginia Division of Highways, and possibly a few other agencies I have forgotten. Between meetings, flurries of paper flew back and forth. In February, 2000, we signed an agreement committing the defendants to find new alignments on 40% of the project.

The major changes involved the Corricks Ford Battlefield south of Parsons, the Blackwater Canyon early industrial complex, with its beehive coke ovens, and the Moorefield Battlefield. We got twenty years of breathing room for Wardensville, five miles down the mountain from Virginia, to adjust to the new highway; and we kept the road out of Big Run Bog, a Research Natural Area on Backbone Mountain.

We can’t ignore that moving the highway meant moving the damage. Steering it farther away from the Fernow Experimental Forest and Otter Creek Wilderness pushed it into a pretty piece of the National Forest, where Panther Run, a native trout stream, flows below the South Haddix Trail, one of my favorites. Its short-and long-term impacts will be felt by nearby friends and neighbors including Barbara Weaner, a former Highlands Conservancy board member. We are encouraged by the Forest Service’s efforts to protect the streams.

In his interview for the Construction article, WVDOT’s Murphy mentioned “continual re-evaluations every three years if construction doesn’t begin on a section.” Re-evaluations may turn up new things; more often, they find things missed in previous surveys. Things such as the small whorled pogonia, an endangered species of orchid, or colonies of protected bats. We’re in the sixth three-year period since the agreement was signed, and there will be more.

In 2017, Corridor H is practically completed from the east as far as Davis. We have not seen any persuasive evidence that has, or will, bring benefits that outweigh its damage. It does shave time off a trip to Washington, if you’re someone who drives to Washington. It has been good for the second-home market. Politics as usual rewards those who are already better off.

The magazine writer’s last question had to do with our involvement in the project’s final stage. The Highlands Conservancy will continue monitoring compliance with the settlement agreement. Along with our allies we intend to protect the Blackwater Canyon—the section that was left unsettled. Remembering Senator Byrd’s budget techniques, we have earmarked funding for that.