By Hugh Rogers
In Tucker County, advance men for the Division of Highways (DOH) have been saying that a Northern Route for the Davis-Thomas section of Corridor H was never more than “a crayon mark on a map.”
Yet once upon a time, as recorded in the 2007 Environmental Impact Statement, the DOH had a pretty good idea what a northern route would look like on the ground.
In Table S-2, they compared their preferred alternative with several northern routes as to length, cost, travel time, footprint in acres, volume of earthwork, business and residential displacements, reduction in truck traffic through Thomas, as well as effects on cultural resources and many natural resources that included wetlands (four types), floodplains, streams, and endangered species habitat. So where did they get all those numbers?
If there never was a Northern Route, the DOH would not have complied with its obligations under the Settlement Agreement that concluded our lawsuit:
- Construction may begin following completion of an alignment shift study, which will evaluate alternatives for avoiding the Blackwater Canyon.
- The study will be conducted to evaluate one or more alignment shifts for the Davis-Thomas section of the project as a four-lane divided highway.
- Those alignments generally would involve shifting Corridor H to the north of Thomas, then connecting to WV Route 93 east of Davis.
- The Blackwater area includes the Blackwater Canyon from Thomas to Hendricks. This area includes all historic resources associated with coal mining and coke production in the late 19th and 20th Centuries.
Of course, the Northern Route did not reach the stage of final design. Neither has the DOH’s preferred alternative. The Settlement Agreement contemplated that, “If a prudent and feasible alternative route were to be found, the new route would have to be developed. Estimated time for the various studies is 18 months.”
That’s 18 months—not the three- or four-year delay the DOH has threatened.
The northern alternative was supposed to be explored for “the Davis-Thomas section of the project.” Its continuation west of that, as DOH designed it, was a failure. It had no access to the high school, excessive cuts and fills, more stream crossings, and other problems. It can be thrown out.
The Northern Route is the Davis-Thomas section. To benefit both towns, to avoid a wide barrier between them, to relieve Thomas of truck traffic, and to preserve the Blackwater area (whether you call it the Canyon or not), it must be included in studies for the next Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The 2007 EIS is obsolete; the previous consideration of alternatives is even older. Beginning a fresh consideration of the Northern Route now will save time and money. West of Thomas, it can be connected to DOH’s preferred alternative.
A strong majority of local businesses have declared their support for the Northern Route, but they’ve had difficulty persuading their town councils to take a stand. The case they have made is a positive one. Everyone should realize, though, that the old preferred alternative would violate the federal law protecting significant historic sites and recreation areas. The Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places has stated that the Blackwater Industrial Complex from Thomas to Hendricks is eligible for that protection. How long will the DOH continue to ignore this problem? How much more delay will be the result?