A plan for a controversial highway, known as the Coalfields Expressway, will undergo a full environmental impact study by the Virginia Department of Transportation.
V-DOT has described the plan the road as an economic lifeline for a region with a depressed economy. But citizen groups see it as benefiting only coal mining companies and not local communities.
The Coalfields Expressway is a long planned route that would link Interstates 64 and 77 in West Virginia with Route 23 in the southwest part of Virginia. But in 2005 when high cost estimates threatened the project, the Virginia Department of Transportation found what it calls “innovative ways to make highway construction more efficient and effective.” Through a program known as a public private partnership V-DOT could slash road-building costs by partnering with coal companies, and gaining use of their considerable earth moving equipment to build the road. In turn, the proposed route was changed to allow the companies easy access to new coal reserves, which fall within the right of way of the new route.
“This is a mountain top removal project disguised as a highway that doesn’t benefit anyone in the community that only benefits coal company CEOs," says Kate Rooth, Campaign Director for Appalachian voices, an advocacy group for the central and southern Appalachian region.
“We are not opposed to new roads in the region. Southwest Virginia needs eco stimulus because it has borne the brunt of our entire region’s energy reliance for over a hundred years and as a result we need projects that will drive new economy, however the current alignment of this road does the opposite. The new route for this road bypasses town centers so we feel strongly that it’s not serving the original purpose.”
Doug Hecox of the Federal Highway Administration, which requested the study, said V-DOT will take an in-depth look at the potential affects of the proposed coalfields expressway on wildlife, history and culture, jobs as well as coal mining interests and impact. Michelle Earl of the Virginia Department of Transportation said V-DOT will begin to prepare a scope of work for the study, which will include an opportunity for public comment. After that, she estimated the environmental impact study could take twelve to eighteen months.