FAIRMONT — Fairmont city councilman Phil Mason told delegates, city and county officials, and highway representatives gathered to discuss expanding roads in West Virginia what his mother used to tell him, “‘Can’t’ never did anything.”
On Thursday, Charles Clements, the Route 2/I-68 Authority executive director, led a roundtable discussion with local and state officials to present information on the need to expand W.Va. 2 from Parkersburg to Chester to a four-lane highway and extend Interstate 68 from either Morgantown or Fairmont to the Ohio Valley to connect to W.Va. 2.
Clements said the Route 2/I-68 Authority includes 10 counties: Hancock, Brooke, Ohio, Marshall, Wetzel, Tyler, Pleasants, Wood, Monongalia and Marion counties, with two representatives per county eligible.
Marion County’s only representative for the project is city councilman Phil Mason.
Clements quoted the late A. James Manchin in his opening remarks, who he said stood in the county commissioner’s office during one of the authority’s meetings and said, “Route 250 is that part of hell that never caught on fire.”
“We know when it comes to highways, the squeaky wheel is going to get the grease,” Clements said. “If we remain silent, we will have these same roads for years.”
W.Va. 2 parallels the Ohio Valley and is currently a two-lane highway with four-lane sections. The longest part of that highway is a 24-mile stretch going to Marshall County.
Clements said more than 30 manufacturing companies are located along this road.
“It’s a highly industrialized area, and it is getting more and more industrialized with the possibility of cracker plants being built in that area,” he said. “We need to make sure we are prepared to handle it.”
Clements said the rise of the natural gas industry is one reason the roads are due to be reinvented in this part of the state.
“Natural gas has really changed things. Heavy trucks are constantly on the road, oversized loads, high traffic,” he said. “W.Va. 2 was not constructed to accommodate this type and volume of traffic.”
Clements showed a picture of cars lined up in traffic in New Martinsville and said it was a common sight because of the gas industry.
“This was not a picture taken when the traffic built up,” he said. “You could go out there right now and take that exact picture in the town.”
Clements said I-68 is a major transportation route in Maryland and eastern West Virginia that needs to be expanded to the Ohio Valley.
One reason for this needed expansion, he said, is the ability to get goods from the East Coast to the Ohio Valley.
He cited the recent work on the Panama Canal, which he said meant many big container ships and other goods will be coming to the East Coast, primarily Baltimore because it’s the largest deep-water port on the East Coast.
Clements said both the Ohio Valley and the Mon Valley have many resources.
“We’re going to create better economic opportunities for North Central West Virginia when we tie these two areas together.”
Clements and Mason said I-68 has traffic reports of around 44,000 people a day around Fairmont, but with the expansion it could be possible for trucks on the highway to reach 35 percent of America’s manufacturing base.
“More business, more jobs. That’s what we’re after with I-68,” he said.
Clements said both the Ohio Valley and the Mon Valley have airports, rail yards and river barges, but they “don’t have good roads to support industry.”
He said that causes lost economic development, manufacturing, population, children leaving and jobs.
“The coal industry has really taken a hit, and we need to find a way to get more jobs,” he said. “We have to make it attractive so people want to come here.”
Clements said one of the major concerns with W.Va. 2’s current two-lane state is the safety concern it poses to motorists, especially with the natural gas industry’s heavy loads.
“It’s big stuff that moves,” he said. “School buses are always a problem. Gas companies in New Martinsville have agreed not to transport equipment while (school buses) are on the road.”
Clements shared data showing West Virginia ranked fourth highest in the United States for motor vehicle-related deaths, showing 17.9 deaths per 100,000 West Virginians.
Clements said the expansion could happen in two ways, stressing the difference between W.Va. 2 and I-68 as projects.
“We can build Route 2 a mile or two at a time, and that’s what we’ve been doing,” he said. “I-68 needs to almost be (an) ‘all or nothing’ piece of roadway. I would not want to dump interstate traffic from any direction into Huntington, West Virginia, and then say, ‘Take Route 250 or 7 to get to where you’re going.’ That would be a real plan for disaster.”
Clements stressed industry and safety were two major concerns and reasons W.Va. 2 and I-68 needed to be addressed, but also said he knew creative means for funding both statewide and federally would have to be addressed.
Two ideas he explained to delegates were possible public-private partnerships and tolls.
While Clements said he knew tolls were not popular, the West Virginia Turnpike brings in more than $80 million in revenue each year.
Delegate Tim Manchin, D-Marion, said he was in favor of expanding the highways but that the money priority had not been for expanding roads until now.
“I think we are now at the point with all the natural gas development that’s going on that it’s now more important than ever,” he said. “I think it’s time for us to reprioritize in the state and put more emphasis on trying to get I-68 extended and Route 2.”
Manchin said the budget for the state Legislature had been stretched for the past 10 years and was “thin.”
“We can’t create these new highways without federal assistance,” he said. “We can’t raise enough revenue in the state to do it by ourselves. Certainly I think if we can get additional assistance out of the federal government, then we will find the money to do the magic and get it done.
“I think we need to focus our efforts on North Central West Virginia. This is turning into the economic bread basket of the state.”
He said he agreed that toll roads or an increase in taxes on gasoline in order to fund the roads and increase revenue were both ideas.
Manchin said he thought maintaining roads and working on new roads were both important to keeping people safe and reducing the death rate among accidents.
“That tells us one, we have to improve our existing roads and two, we have to create better roads in areas where you can’t necessarily just maintain them in a safe manner,” he said. “Where you have this heavy truck driving, it doesn’t make any difference whether you are maintaining the road. If you don’t have enough room and forcing school buses and other vehicles off the highway, it doesn’t make any difference to maintaining the roads.”
Clements said he thought progress was being made, but citizens and officials should do more to make people aware of this movement so the movement could grow from the grassroots.
He asked those in attendance at Thursday’s meeting to write letters to the editor, pass resolutions of support and educate representatives on needs in the state.
Email Rachel Ellis at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @rachehawkinstwv.