GILBERT — For anyone who has lived in southern West Virginia during the past 20 years, they may be familiar with the term King Coal Highway.
The King Coal Highway is a project that has been in talks and underway for a very long time leaving residents to wonder if the economic opportunity and interstate would ever actually happen other than the pieces of highway in separate locations. On Tuesday, the King Coal Highway I-73/74 Authority hosted a community forum at the Larry Joe Harless Community Center to discuss the current plans, ideas and direction that the King Coal Highway is heading.
Gilbert Mayor Vivian Livingood opened the event and introduced some of the faces in the room including State Senator Bill Cole, Delegate Harry Keith White, Mayor Joe Ford and Mingo County Superintendent of Schools Robert Bobbera. Livingood took the opportunity to boast about the innovation and resourcefulness that the town of Gilbert has created for themselves.
John Bullock with Gaddy Engineering, who is providing their services free of charge, made a presentation for the forum describing their vision and plan to officially make the King Coal Highway happen which includes moving the route from low on the Tug Fork to high on the divide between Marrowbone and Tug Fork. The road will travel from Rt. 119 near Belo and Williamson to Bluefield. The Tolsia Highway is also included in the project and will travel from Rt. 119 at Millers Creek near Naugatuck to Exit 1 on I-64 near Huntington.
Bullock proposed that the Authority use New Market Tax Credit loans to help finance the project. The New Markets Tax Credit (NMTC) was designed to increase the flow of capital to businesses and low income communities by providing a modest tax incentive to private investors. To help payback the NMTC loans, land companies and mining companies would donate the land needed to make the roadway and would be able to use it as a tax credit. After the highway is completed, donors will see a massive increase in the worth of their land.
“A mining company might donate 100 acres of unmined land that is worth $300 per acre but after he donates it and the project is complete, it could be worth $10,000 per acre,” said Bullock.
According to Bullock, the plan is to make use of the existing permits on the land and that because the construction is only “grade” construction, it will cost approximately $21 million per mile.
Bullock is confident that 8.8 miles of the proposed project is completely doable after talking to land owners, looking at the geology and layout of the mountain and after applying for the New Market Tax Credits. The proposed road is 3 miles shorter which will save approximately $63 million. There are fewer bridges as well, only needing to connect ridges in three or four places. These bridges will cost approximately $40 million each.
“The Department of Highways seems receptive and the land donations will repay the New Market Tax Credit loans,” said Bullock. “There are several sections that can be completed simultaneously which means more jobs. We will also need mining companies to come and mine the coal where we are cutting through. The Department of Highways will purchase the roadway when the federal funds are available in approximately 10 to 15 years.”
Part of the stipulations of the NMTC loans includes communities building something to better the community such as a hospital, hotel, charter school or even office buildings. According to Bullock, it is through this type of project that the road can be built. The NMTC is a huge resource available to low income communities. The NMTC makes up five billion dollars of President Barack Obama’s Fiscal 2016 Budget.
The King Coal Highway I-73/74 Authority Executive Director Mike Mitchem spoke after Bullock.
“The construction and existence of this roadway will inject hundreds of millions of jobs for workers in construction, retail, service, and warehouse industries,” said Mitchem. “The annual economic impact is estimated to be $220.3 million that sustains 2,200 jobs after construction is complete.”
The King Coal Highway will effect five southern West Virginia counties including Mingo, McDowell, Mercer, Wyoming and Wayne county. There are currently five King Coal Highway projects that are completed including 14 miles in Mingo County near Mingo Central High School. The King Coal Highway will be four lanes, 65 MPH highways similar to Rt. 119. When completed, the highway will be 95 miles long.
“The King Coal Highway will be West Virginia Corridors of Interstate 73/74 which is the #5 high priority corridor in the nation,” said Mitchem. “The interstate will travel from Sault Ste. Marie Michigan to Myrtle Beach, S.C and connect to Chicago, Indiana and Iowa. The route contains over 63 million people or over 22 percent of the US population.”
According to Mitchem, the highways will provide better driving safety, economic development, decrease in travel time and better flood control to the residents of West Virginia.
“We will be able to do so much with the land near these highways,” said Mitchem. “Some of the proposed projects include housing, commercial developments and a Trans gas plant.”
Travel times will almost be cut in half as a result of the new highways. Currently it takes 80 minutes to drive from Miller’s Creek to Kenova but with the completion of the Tolsia Highway, that drive will take approximately 55 minutes. The King Coal Highway will serve a huge amount of time saved seeing that as of now it takes approximately 150 minutes to drive from Bluefield to Belo. The new travel time with the highway will be cut in half at 83 minutes.
“There are multiple proposed interchanges for the King Coal Highway,” said Mitchem. “Some of the these are Johnny Cake Mountain in McDowell County, the head of North Springs in Wyoming County, near Sandlick in Mercer County, Horsepen Mountain, Taylorsville and Twisted Gun Gap in Mingo County. This will change West Virginia. This will change southern West Virginia.”
Mitchem is asking that anyone who supports the King Coal/Tolsia highways to sign an online petition in support of the highways. You can sign the online petition at www.surveymonkey.com/r/kingcoal.
Madalin Sammons is a reporter for the Williamson Daily News. Madalin can be reached at [email protected] or by phone at 304-664-8225.