Monday, March 13, 2017

If Trump can't revive coal, West Virginians hope he can at least fix state's highways

Dubbed The Bridge to Nowhere, this West Virginia road
was never completed (USA Today photo by Jasper Colt) 
In West Virginia, where President Trump scored an overwhelming victory, some say his promise to 'bring coal back" and his pledge of $1 trillion for infrastructure are equally important. Rick Hampson reports for USA Today. That's because in West Virginia, in addition to having lost coal jobs, many rural areas lack highways that are easy to traverse. And if Trump can't bring back coal, the hope is that he can at least improve roads and make isolated areas more accessible.

Ray Bailey, the assessor in McDowell County, one of the nation's poorest counties and where Trump got 74 percent of the vote, told Hampson, “If we could get highways in here, we wouldn’t have to depend on coal." Gordon Lambert, a county commissioner, a Democrat and a Trump voter, told him, “If we don’t get our highways this time, we won’t get them in our lifetime.’’

Hampson writes, "Since 1960, when the coal industry began to collapse, McDowell County’s population has declined from 71,000 (third largest in the state) to 21,000 (29th). Only one in three adults works for a living, and the largest employers are the schools and two prisons. Last year even Walmart pulled out. The lack of highways has exacerbated the isolation that for two centuries has been Appalachia’s curse."

One problem is that when coal was king there was no reason for highways, Hampson writes. "Coal was mined by people who lived near mines, and taken away by rail and river. When the interstate highway system was built, it was easy to bypass a state so mountainous that the average cost per mile of construction was as much as eight times higher than in a place like Kansas." Many thought the answer would be the King Coal Highway and Coalfields Expressway, "which would crisscross southern West Virginia, bypassing Route 52 and its ilk. They’ve been on the planning board for decades, but so far only six drivable miles have been constructed."

West Virginia also has the The Highway in the Middle of Nowhere, "a 1.5 mile roadbed constructed in 17 years ago but still unpaved and unconnected," Hampson writes. "And, at the eastern end of The Highway that Time Forgot, near the Virginia line, there is The Bridge to Nowhere. The twin-span, four-lane, 20-story structure was completed a decade ago. But it dead-ends into the side of the aptly named Stony Ridge."

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