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Funding stalls completion of dangerous road

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Commercial trucks and cars still share a 14.6 mile, two-lane stretch on Route 35. Commercial trucks and cars still share a 14.6 mile, two-lane stretch on Route 35.

It's been one of the most discussed, and cussed, stretches of roads in the state of West Virginia for decades.

The heavily traveled U.S. Route 35 that cuts through Putnam and Mason counties in the western part of the state is known as a vital passageway for both travelers and the trucking industry.

In total, Rt. 35 is a 412-mile stretch of north-south roadway, starting at Scott Depot, crossing into southeastern Ohio at Pt. Pleasant, traveling up past Columbus and ending at Michigan City, Indiana — at Lake Michigan.

But the main focus, and sometimes controversial aspect of Rt. 35 for the past several years has been on a 14.6 mile, east-west section that runs through Putnam County and Mason County.

That nearly 15 mile swath is only two lanes, winding through farmland and countryside, mostly parallel to the Kanawha River as it flows towards the Ohio River.

"Safety is a big concern," said Brent Walker, spokesman for the West Virginia Department of Transportation. "Over several decades, the two-lane road has been a major truck route. It's seen a lot of accidents through the years. 

"Safety is one of the most important reasons (to complete the road upgrades). Of course, there will be commerce and development come from it as well." 

It's proven dangerous on numerous occasions. But a lack of funding has repeatedly stalled the completion of upgrades to four lanes on Rt. 35.

Funding is always at the top of the Department of Transportation's list, Walker said, adding that Rt. 35 is a priority.

Some work on Rt. 35 was completed in 2009, until funds ran out.

That year, the path of Rt. 35 was changed. Instead of its former southernmost entryway being near St. Albans at the intersection of Rt. 60, the completion of a new entry point, an interchange along I-64 at Scott Depot, connected the new four-lane Rt. 35 roadway to the Johnathan David Higginbotham Memorial Bridge near Buffalo. It made for a smoother transition of traffic, especially heavy trucks.

The "old" 35 from the St. Albans area is also just two lanes, running through the town of Winfield to where Rt. 35 and Rt. 62 converge. That road was rechristened Rt. 817 in 2009.

Seeking funding

How does the remaining work on Rt. 35 get completed? It's a question many have asked but few have answered.

"A funding mechanism is needed," Walker said. "Then-Gov. (Joe) Manchin asked what it would take to finish Rt. 35." 

And a lot of options were considered at that time.

"Through studies, we felt the only way we could fund it would be through tolls," Walker said. "The Legislature got involved and agreed to it, but we had to get approval from the county commissions at Putnam and Mason counties." 

Initially, both counties gave the OK, essentially approving the completion of Rt. 35, even if it meant tolls.

The project was opened for bid, and a bid was awarded at just over $187 million.

It screeched to an abrupt halt, however.

After some negative public feedback concerning placing tolls on the road during public forums, the Mason County Commission withdrew its approval.

The project was shelved, for the most part.

Without tolling as an option, funding was not available.

"We remain hopeful," Walker added. "There's no reason to think that there won't be some good news, but we're just not there yet."

Still to come

By all indications, Rt. 35 upgrades will be completed — eventually. Work has continued in small steps.

Right-of-ways have continued to be purchased from land owners.

"We just took a step back," Walker said. "We still have the alignment. Everything was in place because we had awarded the contract. 

"In fairness to the land owners right in the middle of the alignment, (W.Va. Department of Transportation) Secretary (Paul A.) Mattox said that we needed to complete the right-of-ways purchases," Walker said. "It seemed unfair. They couldn't do anything with that property. It was the right thing to do.  

"We remain hopeful we can find a funding method to complete it. There's still a lot of due diligence to be done there, with our legal folks and hiring a consulting firm. If it were to go to a (public-private partnership) route, there's still a lot of work to be done."

Some have reason to believe that it could be sooner than later.

During a Putnam County Commission transportation committee meeting in November, an internal DOT document surfaced that showed public-private partnerships could again spark work on Rt. 35 as early as summer 2014, calling the road a "candidate" for such funding.

Walker cautioned that the news is "premature," however.

Senate Bill 190 that passed in the 2013 regular session allows for P3, or public-private partnership funding.

"Through the leadership of Gov. (Earl Ray) Tomblin we've been able to look at other delivery methods," Walker said. "Another funding option is through public-private partnership. There have been a lot of discussions about that. People are anxious to see what kinds of projects would best fit under the P3 delivery method.

"We haven't made those lists yet, but certainly the larger projects like the completion of U.S. 35, Corridor H or Rt. 10 and others would be on it, we just have not settled on anything."

Road to future opportunities

Transportation is of great importance to Putnam County.

It has a transportation committee that meets every other month. Putnam is believed to be the only county in the state to have such a committee.

"It mostly brings up local issues," Andy Skidmore, a Putnam County commissioner and its transportation committee chairman, explained. "A representative from DOH comes in. He is familiar with things that are going on in the county and can answer questions from the public.  

"In a Nov. 18 meeting, a representative from the DOT announced that the Rt. 35 project has made what they call their ‘TRIP report,'" Skidmore added. "Sure, there are still a lot of things that still need to be done. But it shows that it's on their radar to be completed.  

"There are still things to be worked out. But it has at least made it to that first report. We know it's not official, but for them to put it on their list, it shows that they're trying to make it work." 

Putnam officials aren't only looking at the economics involved.

"There's been a concern with all of the accidents (close to the Johnathan David Higginbotham Memorial Bridge, that crosses the Kanawha River near Buffalo, connecting Rt. 35 to Rt. 62)," Skidmore said. "One accident earlier this year involved a potential hazardous chemical truck that wrecked. That where the safety portion comes in play."

Progress in the east

There have been some successes of late for the DOH.

Corridor H, for example, in the eastern part of the state.

"Last week, we opened another small section, from Bismarck to Scherr," Walker said. "It was just under five miles. It's exciting to show progress. 

"One of its challenges has been funding. But we continue to plug away." 

The road has also been a long term project.

"In the last three years, we opened 50 miles of new Corridor H highway," Walker added. "In the next two years, another 16 miles will open, from Davis to Wardensville. That opens up a great roadway to our east."

Still, funds are short there too.

"Parsons to Davis was the biggest challenge," Walker shared about the Tucker County stretch. "We have spent about $1.5 billion on that project. We need another $1 billion to complete it. It's expensive, but it will be a nice finishing touch to our corridor projects." 

With the West Virginia Legislature back in session next month, count on funding highways to be back on state lawmakers' agendas.

"Funding is always at the top of our list, it's always a priority," Walker said. "Through the Blue Ribbon Commission, there has been some wonderful work and ideas. We're looking for their final report. It will give us a great snapshot, one that we can talk openly about, the needs in our state. We can talk seriously about the state of our highway transportation. 

"The whole country is battling for funds. There are a lot of needs."