Talking Out of Both Sides of Their Mouths

Route of proposed Coalfields Expressway

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

While perusing today’s edition of the Roanoke Times, I ran across an article that astounded me.  It concerned a meeting recently in Southwest Virginia about the Coalfields Expressway.  I remembered hearing about this proposed highway many, many years ago and thought that it had been dismissed as a pipe dream.  It turns out that the idea (and hope) is still alive.

The Coalfields Expressway would be a 115-mile federal four-lane, divided highway running from the intersection of I-64 and I-77 near Beckley, West Virginia to U.S. Rt. 23 in Pound, in Wise County.  West Virginia has opened 15 miles of its 66-mile portion of the proposed highway and another 21 miles are in various stages of construction or planning.  Virginia has begun constructing 7 miles of its 50-mile portion.  That stretch overlaps with Rt. 460, linking Grundy to Kentucky.  The cost of the Virginia portion is estimated at over $3 billion.

As reported by the Roanoke Times, Secretary of Transportation Sheppard Miller III earlier this week conducted a “listening session” in Southwest Virginia to discuss the Expressway.  Area leaders reminded Miller that the “Coalfields Expressway has been in the works for 28 years and is a long way from completion.”  Will Morefield, the Republican representing the area in the House of Delegates, remembered hearing it discussed when he was in elementary school (he was born in 1984).

All the area leaders stressed the importance of the highway to the area’s development.  “Many of our localities in the coalfields have lost half, if not more, of their population,” Morefield said. “The Coalfields Expressway is extremely important to economic development in the area…I’m confident we can finish this if we have an administration — and I’m confident Gov. Youngkin and his administration and you and your team are willing to do whatever it takes to continue this process and expedite the construction of this expressway. It is absolutely imperative.”

Virginia’s six-year transportation plan includes only $171.3 million for the Expressway, which would fund a little over two miles of road construction.  When he was asked where the remainder of the needed funding could come from, Miller replied, “We have more money than we’ve had in a while.  Virginia has been starved for transportation money, but I think there are better years ahead. We’ll do our best to take care of everybody. It’s a big state with a lot of needs. There are a lot of needs here.”

That comment was in sharp contrast to what he and his boss, Governor Youngkin, have been saying recently at the other end of the state.  Speaking in favor of Youngkin’s bill to suspend the gas tax for three months and then phase it back in over two months, as well as cap future increases, Miller told the House Finance Committee on April 19, “We have an exceptional amount of revenue that we did not expect a couple years ago in the transportation plan.  Over six years it’s in the billions of dollars. And obviously the governor has made a pledge to try to get some of the revenue back to the citizens who have contributed it to the commonwealth.”  It is estimated that the proposed bill (HB 6001) would result in a loss of $628 million in transportation revenue over seven years.  Most of that loss, $343.5 million, would occur in the upcoming fiscal year.  On May 10, Governor Youngkin continued to push for the legislation, contending, “We have more money in the system than we thought. Over a billion dollars more in the commonwealth transportation budget. It’s Virginians’ money and it’s time for us to let them have it.”  Apparently, the Governor feels having more money than you thought you would have means you don’t need it.  The folks in Southwest Virginia told his Secretary of Transportation something different and he seemed to agree.