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Once a political football, Corridor H aims for end zone

by Nora Edinger

REGIONAL EDITOR

In 1996, Democrat Charlotte Pritt unsuccessfully tried to ride a wave of anti-Corridor H sentiment right into the governor's mansion.

Four years later, Corridor H draws hardly a comment from Republican Gov. Cecil Underwood and Democrat challenger U.S. Rep. Bob Wise. The two are in agreement that the 132-mile route from Interstate 79 at Weston to the Virginia border should be completed.

How did the road go from a political hot potato to what major party leaders seem to consider a mandate? And, what happened to those who challenged the need to extend $1.3 billion worth of four-lane highway through some of West Virginia's least-populated counties?

The long, winding road

"It's the highway from hell and the road to nowhere -- just like it always was," said Jim Sconyers, director of the West Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, noting opposition may have quieted but has not disappeared.

The chapter was among 15 plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed during the 1996 campaign season. The lawsuit was settled in 1999 with an agreement that allowed highway construction to proceed, but broke the remaining 100 proposed miles into nine independent sections.

Both sides claimed victory and much of the debate dropped out of the news and political controversy.

"Each of the projects has to justify its own funding," said Pam Moe-Merritt, an officer with Corridor H Alternatives, another plaintiff.

The non-profit group continues to oppose construction completion -- as designed by the Division of Highways -- in terms of cost, environmental impact, traffic need, the potential of sprawl and the lack of a link to Virginia's Interstate 81. It favors upgrades to current roads in some sections and supports four-lane construction in others.

Moe-Merritt sees the numerous highway projects started during the Underwood administration as a potential way to starve out at least the portions of Corridor H opponents dislike most.

"They'll all be competing for the same pot of money," Moe-Merritt said.

In other facets, the settlement has already forced rerouting studies for areas near historic sites at Corricks Ford Civil War battlefield (Parsons) and Blackwater Canyon. Moe-Merritt said opponents are also watching endangered species studies and potential impact on environmentally sensitive sites such as Lost River and Greenland Gap in the far eastern portion of the state. Some are also voting for Gubernatorial candidate Denise Giardina (Mountain Party), who opposes completion.

"I think the passion is still there," Moe-Merritt said of the potential of Alternatives and other groups to introduce new litigation.

The drive to completion

But, as opponents study sectional plans and possible maneuvers, the Division of Highways continues to work on sections that have already received approval.

A 3.5-mile stretch from Aggregates on Elkins' western border to U.S. Route 219 will open this month. An additional 5.5 miles from U.S. 219 to Kerens is scheduled to open in November 2001. More construction is under way in the eastern part of the state from Moorefield to Baker.

"It's been a long time coming," said William Hartman, an insurance business owner who is involved with the pro-completion group Coalition for Corridor H.

Hartman sees Corridor H's completion to Wardensville, about six miles shy of the Virginia state line, as a tool for economic development, especially for the timber industry.

So does Jim Schoonover, a banker who is president of the Randolph County Development Authority.

"It makes ... Elkins a whole lot friendlier," he said of a U.S. 219 connection that speeds access to the middle of downtown.

He noted some businesses will no doubt lose, as traffic is routed away. That is something William Parker, Upshur County administrator, has seen happen there, where Corridor H is already in place.

But while some downtown Buckhannon businesses have had to work harder to develop a customer-luring niche, others have sprung up to serve the highway. Parker cited a Sheetz, Burger King and Wal-Mart near U.S. 20 as examples.

Schoonover added opponents are not considering the middle of the state's transportation needs.

"There aren't any bus lines. There aren't any air fields. There are no navigable rivers. The highway is our only form of transportation," he said of getting county timber to the rest of the world.

On the opposite end of the route, Hardy County Commissioner David Jones shared similar sentiments.

"We are anxiously waiting for its completion," said Jones, who is also vice principal of Petersburg High School.

"We have to drive an hour to get on a four-lane highway," Jones said of the region's isolation.

Jones noted the area has an unusually high driving accident rate, a statistic he attributes to winding mountain roads.

He would also like to see better transportation access for area poultry processors and tourists.

Jones said he sympathizes with environmentalists, but the reality of living without a highway is just too hard.

"In a way, you will lose some of your serenity, but in a way you won't," he said of the trade off between scenic beauty and road safety.

There is an additional move afoot among supporters to extend Corridor H west to I-77 near the Ohio border. That proposal, which has two possible routes, is heavily supported by Lewis County leaders, who favor the Little Kanawha Parkway, an extension of U.S. 33 to Ripley. Another proposal would follow state Rt. 5 to Parkersburg.

"As opposed to some of the environmentalists' cry that 'if you build it they may come,' if we build it they will come," said Robin Poling, director of the Lewis County Economic Development Authority.

Poling believes bringing more traffic, especially trucks, through Weston would allow for travel-related businesses such as hotels, restaurants and gas stations to be constructed and prosper.

Moving mountains,

moving money

With a construction cost of about $15 million per mile, the biggest obstacle to the completion of Corridor H is funding.

"It depends on the money," said Samuel Beverage, highway commissioner, of the $1.3 billion in remaining work. "If we had all the money today, it would still take us about five years to do."

Funding, so far, has come from the state, the Appalachian Regional Commission, discretionary federal pots and the massive 1997 Transportation Equity Act referred to as TEA-21, Beverage said.

Randy Epperly, state deputy highway engineer, said funding has varied from about $100 million to $130 million per year for the last few years, with TEA-21 alone supplying about $60 million annually.

The high cost of Corridor H is related to West Virginia's topography, Epperly said.

"You've got big hills, you've got big valleys, you've got a lot of rock and dirt that has to be moved," Epperly said of the 5,000 acres involved. "The mountains run north and south and we've got an east-west route running across them."

The tumultuous terrain also forces a need for extensive drainage work as the earth moving legally cannot change flooding patterns, he added. Epperly and Beverage said the valley-fill moratorium that is holding back mountain-top removal mining could eventually impact highway construction, as well.

"We are watching that situation carefully," Epperly said.

Another portion of the cost has been numerous required studies, according to Bill McCartney, project manager with engineering firm Michael Baker Jr., Inc. of Virginia Beach, Va.

Baker engineering, which has a Charleston office, is handling the bulk of the environmental and historical impact statements for the project. Among their activities, they've looked for endangered species such as the Cheat Mountain salamander, mapped every wetland, made 18-inch-deep archeology holes every 50 feet of the entire route and even excavated an entire farm site along the way.

History and cultural studies are all that remain to be done to file for approval on several sections, McCartney said. The firm is also helping the state firm up a route within a 2,000 foot corridor of possibility that won't bring more litigation.

"The challenge is to locate a highway that's about 300 foot wide within that corridor and cause the least environmental disruption," McCartney said.

Regional editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1403 or by e-mail at nedinger@exponent-telegram.com.

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