Corridor H from Different Angles

By Hugh Rogers

A Regional Perspective: What DOESNíT Work

In Washington, where the vicissitudes of the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) are just another daytime drama, the latest show was a yawn. Up in the hills, though, we gaped as ARC begged, "Stop me before I pave again!"

ARC wants to come clean. Its mission from the outset was economic development but it spent most of our money on highway construction. Four years ago, when Jesse White was appointed the federal co-chairman, he said he intended to change the emphasis. Most regional politicians opposed his effort -- they have never seen a four-lane they didnít like -- but ARC continued to call into question its 35-year-old highway program. If it succeeds, it could affect funding for Corridor H.

The latest report, "Evaluation of the ARCís Infrastructure and Public Works Program Projects," was released last summer at a Capitol Hill press conference by none other than Rep. Bud Shuster (R-PA), Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. Shuster has helped Senator Byrd shovel plenty of highway money into West Virginia. Now, though, with his cooperation, a direct comparison can be made between ARCís non-highway spending and its Appalachian Development Corridors.

Two independent consultants looked at non-highway projects funded by ARC from 1990 to 1997. The money helped to build industrial parks, water and sewer systems, runways, access roads, business incubators. A total investment of $32.4 million generated 23,377 jobs. As a rough calculation of the projectsí effectiveness, each job cost $1,386 [Italics & bold by editor].

A year and a half before, ARC had released a similar study of the corridors that had been built by 1995. In current dollars, those highways had cost $7.5 billion. They had generated 16,000 jobs -- thus, each job cost $468,750. Non-highway spending was 338 times more effective than highway construction in carrying out the agencyís mission [Italics & bold by editor].

One politician whose state includes part of the Appalachian region has complained about ARCís spending. In early August, Senator George Voinovich (R-Ohio) conducted a "field hearing" in southeast Ohio. He said he wanted to find out "how, possibly, we could redirect the dollars." Voinovich heads a Senate subcommittee with jurisdiction over ARC. He could help the agency change.

The theory that highways promote economic development in mountainous rural areas has been disproved over and over again. (See "The Highlands Voice," June 1999.) Now that more than 80% of the Appalachian corridor system has been built, the projects that remain are the least effective, most destructive, and most expensive -- a precise description of Corridor H. No wonder ARC wants to get out of the highway business.

A Local View: Greenland Gap

For a local view of Corridor H, go to a West Virginia treasure and National Natural Landmark, Greenland Gap in northern Grant County. Its spectacular 800-foot cliffs above a rushing stream have sheltered wildlife and influenced history. Residents, landowners, and visitors to the Gap are distributing a petition to move the Corridor away from its west end. Some Conservancy members, especially Julian Martin, have joined the effort. The petition asks the Division of Highways (DOH) to do two things: first, shift the alignment a half mile west of its current line, and second, build no exits within a mile of the Gap.

The appeal isnít a roar of outrage over the entire corridor project; itís a cry of pain over a very specific wound. It seeks a small, specific remedy. And it has had some effect. State and local politicians have expressed sympathy and interest. In August, the DOH said it wouldnít change a thing, but in light of the projectís long history the rejection should not be considered final. Weíve seen new alignments and sub- alignments and avoidance alternatives and shifted exits and engineering changes so frequent Iíve lost count. At every stage for thirty-five years, the DOH has said, "Itís a done deal." It ainít done yet. The Greenland folks will keep pushing.

The DOH response came in the form of an op-ed piece in The Charleston Gazette by Joseph T. Deneault, State Highway Engineer. Its title, "Road wonít run through Gap," was a classic red herring. Nobody said the road would run through the gap. Deneault wrote that the corridor would pass "approximately" a quarter mile from the mouth of the Gap. "I hope that will relieve the concerns," he wrote. He repeated that "we donít need to consider [changes], because the highway wonít be inside Greenland Gap."

Debbie Kunkel, who has led the petition drive, wrote a reply to Deneault. Ms. Kunkelís husbandís family, which has lived in and near the Gap for many generations, gave 255 acres to The Nature Conservancy (TNC) more than twenty-five years ago. She pointed out that the highway would come within 800 feet, not a quarter mile, of the TNC boundary. It would pass within 250 feet of the site of a Civil War battle. And it would pass through, or on top of, the village of Greenland, home to many of her neighbors. So she did not agree to give up the fight.

Deneault must have known she wouldnít. He cited a few other reasons why the DOH would prefer to go ahead on the present alignment. First, he complained, "it appeared we had resolved the complex issues surrounding the Corridor H highway project." Of course we never "resolved" the issue of Corridor H, we only settled a lawsuit. The plaintiffs (who did not include the folks at Greenland) continue to insist that Corridor H is a waste of money and an unnecessary, destructive intrusion into the heart of West Virginia. Those will continue to be important issues as long as the highway has not been completed. And it canít be finished unless the DOH gets a whole lot more money -- three times as much as it has now.

The plaintiffs did not give up the right to sue over Greenland Gap if the Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places found that it was eligible for protection. So far, the Keeper has declined to do that, but the information available at the time of the ruling was inaccurate as well as inadequate. Debbie Kunkel is working to correct the record. There could be a different outcome. The plaintiffs treated the Gap as a special case because it deserved a better fate than the impacts of Corridor H.

Deneault said the petitionersí suggested alternative could have its own negative impacts. Kunkel replied, "Since the Division of Highways has not yet come to see the route we propose they donít know what it will or will not impact." On the specific impacts Deneault had mentioned, she said the proposed alternative would be 1600 feet away from the John Paul Hott home, used as a military hospital in the Civil War. It would cross the North Fork of Patterson Creek once, while the DOH alignment would not only cross it but would parallel it as close as fifty feet for about 1000 feet. Finally, the petitionersí route would avoid all wetlands, including a wetland near WV 93 that the DOH alignment would damage.

A supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) could cost $2 to 3 million. Kunkel said that much or more would be saved by the petitionersí proposal. The DOHís planned retaining wall at Greenland Gap would not be built, nor would a mile-long access road between WV 93 and County Route 1, the Old Scherr Road.

Whenever the DOH is required to do a supplemental EIS, they say they can finish in a year. Thatís their estimate for the new EIS around Parsons. When theyíre still resisting a supplemental EIS, their estimate is twice as long. Thatís what Deneault predicted at Greenland Gap. But even a two-year delay to study a new alignment would not hold up construction. Last February, Deneault told the Grant County Press that work on Corridor H there was "still a few years away."

Under construction right now are a couple of sections where the traffic almost justifies a four-lane (a few miles north of Elkins) or where heavy truck traffic has to cope with a very old road (South Branch Mountain east of Moorefield). Given a bad project, at least the DOH is spending money where it could do the most good. But the traffic in northern Grant County is minimal. Thereís no "need" there. Since the DOH has to build section by section, it should consider what connections make the most sense. It doesnít make sense to stick a piece of four-lane across the mouth of Greenland Gap.

The DOH always says itís too late to change a thing. Unfortunately, they donít know much about the places they plan to destroy. Where I live, in Kerens, the interchange they drew on their map would have guaranteed wrecks all winter long. The local emergency services chief said, "We might as well move the station over to the foot of the hill where we can walk out and pick up the pieces." The DOH finally changed the location after all the studies were done. They can change their plan at Greenland Gap as well. As Debbie Kunkel wrote, "At this point the highway is still on paper. I donít believe it is too late to do the right thing."

You can help save Greenland Gap. Write to: Deborah H. Kunkel, HC 72, Box 7006, Scherr, WV 26726, or e-mail kunkelatgap@mountain.net, or call (304) 749-8420.