What the H is Going On?

By Olivia Miller

In early June, West Virginia Governor Jim Justice and Babydog sat atop a ravaged mountaintop in front of a fleet of bulldozers, 20-foot-high piles of logged trees, and cameras for a groundbreaking ceremony of section three of the Corridor H route from Kerens to Parsons. To me, the “ceremony” felt more akin to a memorial service for our mountains, rivers and streams, wildlife, the town of Parsons I grew up in, and Wardensville, which has become my second home. 

In his address, the Governor said, “I can tell everyone here one thing. My goal is for ALL of Corridor H to be under contract before I leave office. We’re going to finish this road.”

I’m curious what the Governor considers “finished.” Does the finished four-lane funnel down to the current, winding two-lane Route 55, 500 feet from the Virginia border on top of Great North Mountain through a resistant Virginia to reach the Interstate 81 interchange outside Strasburg? 

The state of West Virginia has already placed a massive amount of resources into Corridor H—to the tune of almost two billion dollars—and let us not forget the immeasurable costs to our environment. To complete the route, though, there is still estimated to be an additional billion dollars worth of work. 

Corridor H has long been referred to as the Road to Nowhere because of Virginia’s long-standing opposition to completing the route within their border and the absence of the highway in any of the state’s short or long-term transportation plans. 

A resolution of the Virginia Commonwealth Transportation Board, found in the 1996 Final Environmental Impact Statement (Appendix A) states, “Be it resolved: That the Commonwealth of Virginia adamantly cannot support the alternative of Corridor H in Virginia.”

This has not changed. The Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors and the Town of Strasburg, who represent the areas that construction of Corridor H would most impact, have reinforced this sentiment. 

On Oct. 11, 2022, the Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution reaffirming their 1993 position against West Virginia’s plans to extend the highway into Shenandoah County. The board said the 1994 alignment, as proposed by West Virginia officials, would likely be harmful to farms, homes, churches, and community centers, and it could cause “irreversible damage to the Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park and the Fisher’s Hill Civil War Battlefield.” 

If completed as envisioned by West Virginia state officials, the road will bulldoze through the Virginia state line, into the George Washington National Forest, through the Cedar Creek drainage, and create a huge interstate exchange where the Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park now lies, while offering almost no benefit to Virginians.

The Town of Strasburg also opposed the plan in a Dec. 8, 2022, letter and shared concerns with the Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors. In the letter, the Strasburg Town Council demanded that the significant adverse impacts on communities in Shenandoah County must be considered before construction of the proposed section from Wardensville to Virginia begins.

What is the point, then, of laying the burden of this four-lane highway on the people of Wardensville and the taxpayers of West Virginia for a road that, as it stands now, will not connect to an interstate in Virginia? What is the big rush, big Jim? Babydog?

For more than 30 years, landowners in the right-of-way path of the Wardensville to Virginia line section have been pestered by highway officials, engineers, and field researchers signaling the looming acquisition of their land. New highway equipment has recently appeared on the outskirts of town and on core drilling has begun on private land. Landowners are being told it’s really happening this time, move out of the way: the road is coming through.

Their peaceful, quiet small town and homes are set to be forever altered by a four-lane highway that stops 500 feet from the Virginia border, where current construction plans show the four-lane merge into a two-lane, and no alternatives are being considered. 

The proposed route from the western side of Wardensville to the Virginia line is approximately 6.8-miles long and is estimated to cost $168 million to complete. The route will cross the George Washington National Forest and two Tier 3 protected native trout streams, plow over homes and farms, skim the edge of downtown Wardensville and travel directly through the town’s wellhead protection area. 

In a comment submitted by the Town of Wardensville during the public comment period, the town’s mayor questioned the impact on the town’s water supply and stated the town was awaiting the Division of Highway’s mitigation plan. The mayor also stated the Council was concerned that the placement of exits would have a negative impact on the town’s economy. 

Also, in the public comment period, the Stewards of the Potomac Highlands questioned whether bypassing the town of Wardensville with a four-lane highway is the best and only alternative, especially considering the environmental impact statement was issued for this section in 1996—27 years ago. 

An environmental re-evaluation of unclear scope was to begin in 2018-19, per documents from a public meeting in May 2018, with construction starting in 2027. A stepped-up timetable from February 2022 slated re-evaluation and right-of-way acquisitions for 2023 and construction to begin in 2024. 

In a letter sent by the Stewards of the Potomac Highlands to the Division of Highways and Federal Highway Administration on June 5, 2023, the Stewards requested a prompt response from the Federal Highway Administration either agreeing to prepare a supplemental Environmental Impact Statement or, alternatively, explaining the reasons why the Federal Highway Administration refuses to do so under the circumstances.

As is true for all remaining sections of Corridor H, from Parsons to Davis and Wardensville to Virginia, these are arguably some of the most special places in the entire state. They have undoubtedly experienced significant changes to the environment, local economy, land use, and in the occurrence of endangered and threatened species since these sections were last given a proper environmental review. 

Like the towns of Thomas and Davis, Wardensville has developed a thriving tourist economy over the last 20 years. A road of this magnitude has the potential to damage the natural and historical assets prized by local people and tourists.

Do these special places not deserve special consideration and care from our state officials?