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History of the Corridor H Project

ORIGINS: In the 1930s, Benton McKaye, early regional planner, suggested a network of highways and parkways for Appalachia. In the 1960s, McKaye's map was the basis for the 13-state corridor system of the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC). Corridor H east of Elkins was proposed as a two-lane parkway through West Virginia's highest mountains. Because of its relatively high cost and low traffic volume, this was the last corridor left unbuilt. In the early 1990s, West Virginia's Corridors D, E, G, L and Q were open, as was Corridor H west of Elkins to I-79.

ECONOMICS? The ARC's first executive director, Ralph Widner, called H the "least defensible" Corridor, partly because it parallels Corridor E (now I-68). Economic studies by the U.S. Transportation Research Board, National Governor's Association, Congressional Budget Office and others showed that new highways promoted suburban growth near large cities, but in rural areas, most road-induced growth came at the expense of existing Main Street businesses. Professor David Hartgen's research, cited in the Corridor H EIS, also found new four-lanes don't bring jobs to rural areas.

Local leaders in business and in emergency services have pointed out that if a spurt of development does result from a new rural road, it often overpowers the local police, fire and rescue squads, water and sewer systems, and perhaps schools--bringing the need for higher property taxes. This results in a higher cost of living to local residents.

CONTROVERSY: A six mile section along U.S. 33 east of Elkins was built in the 1970s, but construction was halted amid controversy over environmental impacts. The highway department held hearings on the first draft of a Corridor H Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) in 1981, but the project was shelved again. Many area residents, tourist businesses and environmental groups opposed the state highway department's plan, which would have continued the "southern route" from Elkins through the National Recreation Area at Seneca Rocks, by Petersburg, Moorefield, and Wardensville to Strasburg, VA.

FEDERAL MONEY: The project was revived in 1990 when Senator Robert C. Byrd (D-WV) chaired the Appropriations Committee and began funneling federal money to the Mountain State. Parts of the FBI, IRS and other agencies were moved to West Virginia, but the biggest single source of money available was the highway fund and therefore Byrd's biggest target. Supporting a Corridor H truck route were the expanding poultry industry, plus timber and real estate interests. Citizens supporting Corridor H expressed concerns about safety on some existing roads, and stated the belief that a four-lane would bring jobs or make commuting easier.

When the Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, Senator Byrd no longer chaired Appropriations, but in 1998 he still secured a large $2.25 billion authorization for Appalachian corridors in 13 states over six years. West Virginia received $345 million for various corridor projects. However, there is still not enough money in the bill to build even half of Corridor H, at $15 million per mile. The proposed road was criticized on NBC-TV's "Fleecing of America," on the ABC Evening News "It's Your Money," and by taxpayer and environmental groups in the Green Scissors and Road to Ruin reports.

CONTINUED OPPOSITION: In 1993, the West Virginia highway division published a revised EIS, with a new route which went north from Elkins and then south to Moorefield. But many citizens felt that improving existing routes would be a better use of money. Nearly 90% of more than 4,000 written comments in 1995 opposed Corridor H. Counting the damage to two national forests, 41 streams, historic sites including two Civil War battlefields, many farms, and Main Street businesses, many believed the costs far outweighed the benefits. EPA Regional Administrator Peter Kostmayer, based on studies by staff scientists rated the four-lane version of Corridor H "environmentally unacceptable." He was then fired and the rating was changed to approve the project.

The highway agencies spent over $30 million on glossy four-color reports describing many different Corridor H routes and their various levels of damage to the environment. However, federal law did not require the Highway Division to pick the least damaging option. So for all the printed words, the environmental damage would still be enormous--including the admitted 1 million acres of forests and 260,000 acres of farmland that would be lost to development.

VIRGINIA'S SOLUTION: Virginia's Commonwealth Transportation Board chose to make minor improvements to Route 55 instead of building its 14 mile section of four-lane to connect to I-81. Instead, Virginia named Route 55 a Virginia Scenic Byway.

Nevertheless, in 1996 the Federal Highway Administration approved West Virginia's plans to build a 100-mile Corridor H which would stop short of the Virginia state line. Current plans call for the four-lane to end just west of Wardensville, earning the title "Road to Nowhere" from national media. Can't we improve Route 55 in West Virginia to match Virginia's standards and promote it as a continuation of the two-lane scenic byway along the Lost River through Wardensville and Baker?

SUITS FILED: In 1996 CHA, joined by 14 local co-plaintiffs and six national "friends of the court" groups sued the West Virginia Division of Highways and the Federal Highway Administration. Plaintiffs charged that the highway agencies violated the National Environmental Policy Act by refusing to consider improving existing roads as an alternative to a new four-lane truck route; and with failure to determine impacts to historic sites before designing the route and beginning construction. The highway agencies won the suit in federal district court, which allowed them to begin taking land in the right of way. Corridor H opponents immediately appealed the case.

Meanwhile, the US Department of Interior, over highway agencies' objections, declared the Civil War battlefields at Moorefield and Corricks Ford eligible for the National Register. This status gave the sites protection from federal roadbuilding. WVDOH refused to move the corridor out of the narrow Shavers Fork valley at Corricks Ford. It plans 200-foot road cuts on Fork Mountain above the battlefield. CHA and others filed a second lawsuit specifically to protect Corricks Ford and the nearby Otter Creek Wilderness.

CONSTRUCTION? In October 1998, WVDOH had let contracts to build a 3.5 mile section of Corridor H from the four-lane US 33 west of Elkins to US 219 North. CHA did not object to construction, since that section had an independent utility as a bypass of Elkins and carried heavy local traffic. However, the U.S. Court of Appeals granted an injunction to stop any construction beyond the bypass. CHA continues to work toward a safe, efficient, less damaging mix of upgrades and new construction.

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