RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — One-half of a highway intended to bring economic development to three southwest counties that are home of Virginia's declining coal economy is headed to a full environmental review.
The Federal Highway Administration ordered the review because a 26-mile section of the Coalfields Expressway has been rerouted, after the entire 50-mile length of the highway had already undergone an environmental review in 2001.
Critics say the rerouting benefits coal companies at the expense of local communities that were to be served, taking the road instead to untapped coal reserves. The state maintains that the shift reflects a public-private partnership that trims billions from the cost of the highway.
The coal companies plan to convert previously mined areas into roadbed.
The environmental review is expected to be completed within 18 months. It will look at environmental and economic effects as well as alternative routes.
"We hope that once the alternatives are fully considered, as well as the original purpose of the road project itself, a different choice will be made," Deborah Murray of the Southern Environmental Law Center said Thursday of the rerouted section.
Murray, a senior attorney with the law center, said the long-planned project was designed to serve local communities and to "diversify the economy with coal declining in the area."
When completed, the expressway would run from Buchanan County to Raleigh County in West Virginia. The expressway would serve two other Coalfields counties — Dickinson and Wise — and carve though the region's rugged, hilly terrain, connecting it with interstates. Most of the region is served by twisting two-lane roads.
The idea behind the expressway is to make the region more accessible to new industries as well as tourists.
Jane Branham of Southern Appalachia Stewards said economically depressed coal communities "desperately need" a link to new economic opportunities. The region suffers, she said, from a lack of public transportation.
"We're not against a road," Branham said of opposition to the rerouted 26-mile section. "But I think it's designed to benefit coal and not the communities. We have nothing compared to Richmond and other places. We want that money to come here."
Michelle Earl, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation in the southwest district office, said the highway will have 24 access points along its entire route. She said the partnership with the coal industry reduces the cost of the project from $5.1 billion to $2.8 billion.
Only 2 miles of the highway have been built to date.
Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap.
VDOT Coalfields Expressway: http://www.virginiadot.org/projects/bristol/about_coalfields_expressway.asp