Boucher vows Coalfields Expressway will proceed


Note Congressman Boucher lost his re-election bid in 2010.

U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., said Friday a federal agency's decision to pull funding from the Coalfields Expressway is a "bureaucratic glitch" that can be ironed out one way or another. He emphasized that the decision, while a momentary setback, hasn't killed the project altogether.

On June 2, the Federal Highways Administration (FHWA) informed the Virginia Department of Transportation that approval of federal funding under the agency's SEP-14 program (Special Experimental Projects) was being terminated because of delays getting the Coalfields Expressway under construction. Boucher said he is confident SEP-14 funding will be restored because Virginia can make a strong case about progress being made on the project. The 51-mile four-lane highway is Virginia's portion of the thoroughfare venturing southwest out of West Virginia - beginning at the West Virginia Turnpike/Interstate 77 near Beckley - and much of the highway in that state has been or is being built.

In Virginia, the Coalfields Expressway is to proceed west-by-southwest from the West Virginia border at Buchanan County to link up with U.S. Route 23 near Pound in Wise County. And it will, Boucher said. "It is important for people in our area to know what (the decision) means and what it doesn't mean," Boucher said. "This decision does not threaten the Coalfields Expressway project. It is what I would call a bureaucratic glitch, which I hope is correctable. Bureaucratic glitches are not unusual (within the beltway of the nation's capital), and we deal with those every day about a wide variety of projects."

Boucher said even if the agency's decision stands, the FHWA remains committed to providing 80 percent of the funding for the project. "It remains a high-priority corridor within the national highway system, and that designation qualifies the road for 80 percent federal funding, and that status is unchanged," Boucher said. "This decision in no way affects the federal funding that we have made available to the Coalfields Expressway to this date." He said the federal contribution to the project to date is $95.3 million, "and that funding is still available."

He said nearly $38 million has been invested into the project to date for planning, design and preliminary right of way acquisition, "and none of that is affected by that decision." Boucher said he spoke with new Virginia Secretary of Transportation Pierce Homer about two weeks ago about the situation. He said Homer is collecting information "which responds to the (FHWA) letter that shows the progress we are making and that we are able through the public-private partnership to conduct a number of elements of the project simultaneously. We will demonstrate (to the agency) the ways which (the project) has progressed."

Boucher said he has spoken with FHWA's Roberto Fonseca-Martinez, the agency's division administrator who informed state officials of the decision, "and he expressed a broad willingness to enter discussions and entertain information that was not available when that decision was made." SEP-14 permits expedited contracting procedures to build a road, Boucher said, "and we are going back to say, 'We should be qualified for (the funding) because you may not be aware of the elements of the progress we are making.'"

The Coalfields Expressway was one of the first public-private partnership highway construction projects entered into by Virginia, inked by former Gov. Jim Gilmore during his final week in office. Part of the state's Public-Private Transportation Act that makes such projects possible is for private contractors to bring either direct financial investment or a similar element of risk into the road-building venture. In this case, contractors proposed to mine coal where available along the corridor route, a proposal that buys down the cost of the project to taxpayers because a contractor will do at least some of the heavy roadbed earthwork ahead of actual highway construction. Taxpayers win by getting a cheaper project, and the contractor wins not only by making a profit off the coal, but by waiver of certain federal and state environmental restrictions on surface coal mining, such as restoring a mined area to its approximate original contours.

State Sen. William Wampler Jr., R-Bristol, said he was a bit dismayed to learn of the FHWA's decision to terminate the Coalfields Expressway project from further SEP-14 funding. "How in the world can a federal and a state agency come to the conclusion that a vital project of this magnitude is stopped without first trying to fix any problems?" he asked. "And secondly, do it without giving everyone a chance to revise whatever needs to be fixed?"

The Coalfields Expressway isn't in his district, but Delegate Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City, said the project is so important for the region that he will join his Southwest Virginia delegation compatriots to help find and forge solutions. "This is a regional project, and that makes it important for all of us in Southwest Virginia. What we ought to do is step back and look at it, and just go ahead with what state money we've committed - and that's somewhere over $100 million - and start the construction," he said. "What I'm concerned about it is we signed a contract to proceed with this public-private partnership, and I think we may be bound to follow that contract."

June 25, 2005 Kingsport Times-News.

"There's this powerful belief that somehow if you build a modern full-service highway in an economically depressed area that it will bring economic growth and jobs to a region. There's no evidence anywhere that it works."

-- Delegate John A. Rollison III
R-Prince William County
House Transportation Committee chairman

Local politicians were shocked when the federal highway department pulled funding for the over-priced and questionable Coalfields Expressway. This 51 mile long pork-barrel road is touted as the future for the depressed coal counties of Southwest Virginia. Similar claims were made for US 23 through Wise, Russell, and Scott Counties, but has failed to create real private sector jobs in the region. There is no reason to believe this one will either, and the road construction itself and the billions in federal dollars is the real goal.

Also controversial is the "no-bid" sweetheart deal for Halliburton. (Yes, that Halliburton) Under some nonsense called "public-private partnership" (PPP) a firm can lobby Virginia politicians to build projects even if the projects are not needed.