KERENS — Corridor H could be finished in 5 years if the governor will allow the Division of Highways to borrow the funds for it.
Technically, the plan is called a public-private partnership (or P3), an option that became law in 2013.
“What a P3 allows for is for the West Virginia Division of Highways to enter into financing agreements with a single construction company or multiple construction companies to complete transportation projects,” said Robbie Morris, chairman of the Robert C. Byrd Corridor H Authority, during a news conference on the roadway in last week. “A P3 is essentially like buying a house through a mortgage and allows you to get it now and make payments over time. We can do the same thing with Corridor H.”
Morris and other officials assembled in Kerens, about 11 miles north of Elkins, on May 5 to publicly pitch the 3P idea for the long-delayed stretch of road that would connect Interstate 79 near Weston to I-81 in Front Royal, Va.
Corridor H is the last of Appalachian Highway projects left unfinished. Current plans don’t call for its completion until 2037 at the earliest.
The route currently receives $40 million a year From the Federal Highway Administration’s Appalachian Development Highway System allowance. The sum, which doesn’t go to any other road project in the state, is matched by West Virginia.
Federal rules require West Virginia to allow the funds to accumulate until enough money is on hand to construct a useable segment of the highway. The proposed plan will take the ADHS funds and leverage them against soon-to-be freed-up money from other state road bond payments that will be paid off.
Morris said last week that the state can’t afford to wait any longer on the highway.
“For 50 years, the citizens of West Virginia and particularly of this area have been waiting for the completion of Corridor H,” he noted.
The authority chairman cited economic impact studies that the P3 plan would spur growth and save the state highway dollars in the short term. Moreover, he said, the Division of Highways endorses the approach.
P3 funding could be paid off in 10 years, saving state taxpayers more than $200 million in construction costs, he said. Inflation wouldn’t eat away purchasing power 10 or 15 years from now, he contended.
“Being able to upfront those costs, lock in those interests rates, lock in those costs of construction materials today versus 2025 or 2037, that’s where a lot of the savings come in,” he said.
Two years ago a study commissioned by the Corridor H Authority predicted that a 2020 completion date would be a $1.25 billion boost to the West Virginia economy.
The eastern end of the corridor at Front Royal would hook into an intermodal rail line to the giant port at Norfolk, making West Virginia products easily accessible for shipping abroad.
Morris said that only 31 miles remains to be completed, but different segments of that are in much different stages of development.
The 43 miles from I-79 to Kerens have been open since 2003. On the east, the highway, which carries the federal route designation of US 48 that the entire road will someday have, is open from Wardensville to the top of Mount Storm, about 30 miles. Work should finish this spring on another 10-mile segment west to Davis.
But the part in between — 17 miles from Davis to Kerens — still doesn’t have a route design and has fierce resistance from residents and environmentalists.
In addition, the final 6 miles from Wardensville to the Virginia state line remains to be built.
Then there’s the matter of Virginia, which only last year agreed to complete its portion from the state line to I-81. Those plans remain years in the future.
Morris said the secretary of transportation has briefed Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin on the plan and that authority members have met with the governor’s chief of staff.
“It’s a fantastic plan, it’s been used before, it’s been successful and people have been waiting enough. We need to get it done,” Morris said. o