Coalfields Expressway

The Coalfields Expressway is a proposed four-lane highway in southwest Virginia and southwest West Virginia, and it will be 116 miles long. The U.S. Congress in 1995 designated the Coalfields Expressway as a "Congressional High Priority Corridor" when Congress enacted the National Highway System Designation Act of 1995, and that authorizes 80% federal funding for the highway. In both states, location and environmental studies have been conducted, and an approved location has been determined. This four-lane highway will be built on a limited access right-of-way, and most public road crossings will be at-grade, with interchanges at major crossings.

The Coalfields Expressway will be designated as U.S. Route 121, and the highway will run generally along the Virginia Route 83 corridor, from US-23 near Pound in Wise County, through Dickenson County, into Buchanan County, crossing US-460 near Grundy, extending to Slate near the West Virginia border, then following West Virginia Route 83 and West Virginia Route 16 through McDowell and Wyoming counties, and West Virginia Route 16 in Raleigh County, and then ending at Interstates 77 and 64 (the West Virginia Turnpike) near Beckley. Virginia will have 51 miles of the highway and West Virginia will have 65 miles of the highway.

The Coalfields Expressway was originally conceived as an economic godsend to a region where the coal industry is in major decline, where the local unemployment rate in recent years has been over 10%. The likely volumes of traffic will warrant a four-lane mostly-at-grade expressway, but not one built to full freeway standards.

Coalfields Expressway in Virginia

The proposed length of the Coalfields Expressway in Virginia is 51 miles. The cheaper alternative studied would generally run across the tops of the ridges, many of which have been strip-mined, and this was the alternative which was selected by the Commonwealth Transportation Board in August 2000. The more expensive alternative would have run through the valleys near existing VA-83 and other populated areas. The ridgeline alternative will run through relatively unpopulated areas, but will require connector roads to reach the populated valley areas. Local residents expressed concern about the impact of a four-lane highway running through the narrow valleys, with concerns that a lot of the limited flat land would have to be utilized for the highway. They were concerned about access problems to a ridgeline expressway, also. Most local residents are very interested in seeing the new highway built, because it would help stimulate economic growth in this area which has high local unemployment. A number of people are excited about the tourism that would be generated by a spectacular ridge-line expressway, as they have seen how popular that the Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway have been in other parts of Virginia, and they want something like that for southwest Virginia. The ridgeline highway project would likely include extensive restoration of strip-mined terrain. It could be a spectacular road. The presently-isolated but spectacular Breaks Interstate Park would have greatly improved access, also.

The Coalfields Expressway will have a connector built to provide the long-awaited US-460 relocation from near Grundy to Breaks Interstate Park on the Virginia-Kentucky border, and beyond into Kentucky. There have been plans since the 1970s to build a four-lane relocation of US-460, and it would run from the Vansant-Grundy area in Virginia to the Belcher area in Kentucky. East of Grundy, all of US-460 in Virginia has at least four lanes, but between west of Grundy and west of Belcher, the existing US-460 is mostly two lanes through mountainous terrain, with considerable traffic. The annual average daily traffic (AADT) on US-460 just west of Grundy is 7,900, and at the state line is 3,400, according to the 2001 VDOT traffic volumes book, and that includes a 3% percentage of trucks, many of them coal trucks. A modern 4-lane US-460 could accommodate considerably more regional traffic volume.

Coalfields Expressway Location Study, on the official VDOT website. In January 2004, excerpts (in blue text):
In November 1995, Congress enacted the National Highway System Designation Act of 1995, which extended the Coalfields Expressway from the West Virginia state line into Virginia. The proposed roadway is defined in the legislation as going to Pound, Virginia and generally following State Route 83 through Buchanan, Dickenson and Wise counties. The new legislation identified the Coalfields Expressway as a "Congressional High Priority Corridor" and included it as part of the National Highway System (NHS).

Virginia's Commonwealth Transportation Board approved the location for Coalfields Expressway in August 2000, following an extensive study of the environmental, economic, engineering, traffic and right of way impacts of the highway.

The Coalfields Expressway will stretch 51-miles from Pound in Wise County, through Dickenson and Buchanan counties, and will link with the West Virginia Coalfields Expressway near Paynesville, West Virginia. The Virginia Department of Transportation's (VDOT) preliminary estimated price tag for the roadway is $1.6 billion (2001 estimate). This is a broad working cost estimate, without the benefit of design work.

The above webpage goes on to say that the Coalfields Expressway route was approved by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) in November 2001 based on the Final Environmental Impact Statement VDOT submitted and received FHWA approval upon. In January, 2002, a Public-Private Transportation Act (PPTA) agreement was signed with Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR) of Houston, Texas to design and build the highway as a public-private partnership. In September 2002, VDOT awarded a $30.6 million contract to KBR to perform the preliminary engineering for the first segment of the Coalfields Expressway, the 6.5-mile section from Bull Gap to Harmon Junction in Buchanan County. VDOT is in the preliminary engineering phase for a new Route 460 Connector, which will connect the first segment of the Coalfields Expressway from Bull Gap to US-460 in Kentucky, and this 4-mile-long project will be designed and built under VDOT's traditional methods (not part of the PPTA agreement).

Virginia's PPTA: Public-Private Transportation Act (PPTA).

The following VDOT news releases about the Coalfields Expressway, are listed in reverse chronological order from the latest to the earliest.

"Governor Warner Announces Engineering to Begin on First Section of Coalfields Expressway", VDOT news release on September 5, 2002. Excerpts follow (in blue text):
Governor Mark R. Warner announced today that a contract has been signed with Kellogg, Brown & Root, Inc. of Houston, Texas to perform the preliminary engineering for the first segment of the Coalfields Expressway in southwestern Virginia. "The Coalfields Expressway is important to the economic development of the southwestern Virginia region," said Governor Warner. "Today's announcement confirms my administration's commitment to advancing this high priority project."

The $30.6 million contract includes all preliminary engineering activities, such as environmental analysis, geotechnical testing, roadway design and preparation of complete right-of-way acquisition plans, for the 6.5-mile section from Bull Gap to Harmon Junction in Buchanan County. The four-lane highway will be constructed on a new location beginning about a half-mile southeast of Route 609 near Bull Gap and ending near Harman Junction approximately a mile west of the existing intersection of Route 460 and 656. Preliminary plans are to be presented to the public in mid-to-late 2003, with the final plans expected to be completed by early spring 2005.

"Coalfields Expressway Advances Route 460 Connector Slated For Design", VDOT news release on June 20, 2002. Excerpts follow (in blue text):
Action by Virginia's Commonwealth Transportation Board today moves the first section of the Coalfields Expressway a step closer to construction, and starts design on a new Route 460 Connector highway linking the Coalfields Expressway to Kentucky. The board approved the statewide Six-Year Transportation Program that includes approximately $81 million for the two projects.

The first segment of the Coalfields Expressway, identified as Section A, stretches 6.5-miles from Bull Gap to Harman Junction in Buchanan County. The four-lane highway will be constructed on a new location beginning about a half-mile southeast of Route 609 near Bull Gap and ending near Harman Junction approximately a mile west of the existing intersection of Route 460 and Route 656.

"Governor Gilmore Advances Proposal to Build Coalfields Expressway", VDOT news release on August 23, 2001. Excerpts follow (in blue text):
Governor Jim Gilmore today announced that Virginia's Commissioner of Transportation Charles D. Nottingham will begin contract negotiations with a private firm proposing to build the Coalfields Expressway. "The Coalfields Expressway is a top priority for southwestern Virginia and a top priority of mine," said Governor Gilmore. "I have asked Commissioner Nottingham to move forward with the proposal and begin negotiations of the comprehensive agreement that will advance construction of the highway. Without the hard work of Delegate Terry Kilgore and Senator William Wampler this project would not have advanced to this crucial point," said Governor Gilmore. "This is a record investment and the most significant transportation project that Southwest Virginia has seen," said Senator Wampler. "We will move forward on the remaining segments so they can be expedited."

Designated as part of the U.S. highway system, the Coalfields Expressway will stretch 51-miles from Pound in Wise County, through Dickenson and Buchanan counties, and will link with the West Virginia Coalfields Expressway near Paynesville, West Virginia. Under the provisions of Virginia's Public-Private Transportation Act, Brown & Root Services, Houston, Texas, submitted a proposal to design and build the highway as a public-private partnership. The decision to advance the proposal to the negotiation phase comes after an extensive review of the proposal by the Public-Private Transportation Advisory Panel, chaired by Deputy Secretary of Transportation James F. Hayes.

"Commonwealth Transportation Board Approves Coalfields Expressway Location", VDOT news release on August 17, 2000. Excerpts follow (in blue text):
The Commonwealth Transportation Board today approved the location of the $1.1 billion Coalfields Expressway, one of Governor Jim Gilmore's top priority highway construction projects for southwestern Virginia. The four-lane divided highway will stretch 51 miles from Pound in Wise County, through Dickenson and Buchanan counties, and will link with the West Virginia Coalfields Expressway near Paynesville, W.Va.

"Governor Gilmore feels very strongly about building the Coalfields Expressway. It will be a modern, safe and efficient highway through this mountainous area, as well as an economic lifeline for a region experiencing double-digit unemployment and a declining population," said Secretary of Transportation Shirley J. Ybarra. "In fact, the entire multi-state Appalachian region should see a boost in commerce and tourism as a result of the Coalfields Expressway. Designated as part of the national highway system, the new road will link Interstates 64 and 77 in West Virginia with Route 23 in Virginia which links to interstates in Kentucky and Tennessee," Ybarra said.

The transportation board selected the route for the Coalfields Expressway that received unanimous support from county and local governments as well as the region's planning districts and economic development authority during the location study process.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch had an article about the proposed Coalfields Expressway in Southwest Virginia, in the November 9, 1997 edition. Excerpt (in blue text):
"If we're ever going to make the transition from being dependent on coal, we have to open up the area to the outside world with new roads and bring in some manufacturing," said Willard Owens, a leader in Buchanan County's Chamber of Commerce in Grundy. Several other groups also are lobbying the Virginia DOT to build the road. The locally-preferred alternative is the ridgeline alternative. "They say the advantages of a ridgeline road are obvious. First and foremost, it could be built on the mountaintops already leveled by strip mining, leaving smooth, graded land on the highway's edge for new industries". The local political and business leaders are convinced that the Coalfields Expressway will be a magnet for new industry.

Coalfields Expressway in West Virginia

Coalfields Expressway - West Virginia website for their portion of the highway. You can visit the website for the details. Here are some excerpts from the website in January 2004 (in blue text):

The Coalfields Expressway has been designed to serve an area from Interstates 77 and 64 near Beckley southwest through West Virginia to Virginia Route 83 in Buchanan County, VA at Slate. The Expressway will generally follow West Virginia Route 16 through Raleigh and Wyoming counties and West Virginia Route 83 in McDowell County. This four-lane highway project is approximately 65 miles long. Sections of the highway in Raleigh (Sophia area) and McDowell County have been constructed or are already under construction. The old two-lane roadways have many deficiencies for today's transportation needs, including a high percentage of "No Passing" zones, many steep grades and areas of reduced speeds through many communities and school zones. Because of the evident need for improved highway service, the U. S. Congress in 1995 designated the Coalfields Expressway as a "Congressional High Priority Corridor." At the same time, Congress extended the Expressway concept further into Virginia, generally following Virginia Route 83 through not only Buchanan but also Dickenson and Wise counties. During the past decade, the West Virginia Division of Highways (WVDOH) developed a series of possible alternative routes. After a series of public meetings, WVDOH determined the Preferred Alternative.

As part of an intensive program to prevent environmental damage during road construction, the West Virginia Division of Highways (WVDOH) has performed detailed studies throughout the area of the Coalfields Expressway. The report of these studies, the Final Environmental Impact Statement, has been reviewed and approved at both state and federal levels.

The mission of the Coalfields Expressway Authority is to advance and promote the construction of the Coalfields Expressway through Raleigh, Wyoming, and McDowell Counties, and to coordinate with counties, municipalities, state and federal agencies, public nonprofit corporations, private corporations, associations, partnerships and individuals for the purpose of planning, assisting, and establishing recreational, tourism, industrial, economic, and community development associated with the Coalfields Expressway for the benefit of West Virginians.

The Coalfields Expressway Story

House Concurrent Resolution 28, calling for the construction of a new highway linking Interstates 64/77 in Beckley, West Virginia, with Route 460 in Grundy, VA, was introduced in the West Virginia Legislature in 1989. The new proposed highway would generally follow State Route 16 through Raleigh and Wyoming Counties and State Route 83 in McDowell County. The original design concept for the highway was two-lane construction with three-lane passing areas on the mountains. During that same session of the legislature, the HCR 28 was combined with two other highway resolutions and passed. Later that year, the Coal Highways Interim Committee was established to study all three highway proposals. At the conclusion of the meetings of the committee, all three highways were endorsed by the committee and recommended for construction as four lane highways.

In 1991, the U. S. Congress enacted the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) which provided federal assistance for highway studies, design, and construction. The ISTEA identified the Coalfields Expressway as a "congestion relief" project in West Virginia and appropriated $50 million for the project, largely through the efforts of U. S. Senator Robert C. Byrd and U. S. Representative Nick Joe Rahall. Congress defined the highway as extending from Beckley, WV, to the West Virginia/Virginia state line. In 1995, Congress enacted the National Highway System Designation Act (NHSDA). This legislation identified the Coalfields Expressway as a "Congressional High Priority Corridor" and included it as part of the National Highway System (NHS). The NHSDA extended the Coalfields Expressway to Pound, Virginia, generally following VA 83 through Buchanan, Dickenson,and Wise counties, Virginia.

As a result of the state and congressional legislative activity, in August, 1992, WVDOT began holding informational public meetings on the highway and initiated the Coalfields Expressway Project with a location study, that included an environmental inventory, corridor development, and a cost analysis. WVDOT included the Coalfields Expressway in its State Transportation Improvement Plan (STIP) on March 2, 1993. Additionally in 1993, WVDOT began the integrated National Environmental Policy Act and Section 404 of the Clean Water Act (NEPA/404) process for the highway. Consequently, WVDOT proceeded with a Purpose and Need Study in 1994, an Alternatives Study in 1995, a Pre-Draft Environmental Impact Statement in 1996 and a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) shortly thereafter. This DEIS is based upon technical reports that inventory social, natural, cultural, and physical resources within the build alternatives. In April, 1998, public meetings were held soliciting public comment on each of the four remaining build alternatives. In September, 1998, the Preferred Alternative was selected by WVDOT and submitted to the Federal Highways Administration (FHWA) for approval in the DEIS.

In an effort to better facilitate the construction of the Coalfields Expressway, the West Virginia Legislature in 1996 formed the Coalfields Expressway Authority, a public corporation acting as an advisory board for the highway and advocating the highway's construction and promoting economic development associated with that construction. In 1997, the Coalfields Expressway Authority hired an executive director and opened its office in Pineville, West Virginia.

Congress passed the Transportation Efficiency Act for the 21st Century (TEA 21) in 1998, which funneled an additional $22.7 million to the highway, bringing the total available for initial construction to $72.7 million in federal dollars.

WVDOT requested designation of the Coalfields Expressway officially as U.S. 121 in May of 1998. It will be constructed as a four lane partially-controlled access highway with at-grade intersections. It will be built to the same specifications as Corridors G, H, and other Appalachian Development Highway System highways in West Virginia.

External Links

King Coal Highway, by West Virginia Department of Transportation.

Pike County, Kentucky US 460 Reconstruction Project, by  Kentucky Transportation Cabinet.

Virginia Department of Transportation

Breaks Interstate Park

High Priority Corridors @ AARoads.com: Coalfields Expressway/U.S. 121 (Corridor 29), by AA Roads.

Copyright 1997-2004 by Scott Kozel. All rights reserved. Reproduction, reuse, or distribution without permission is prohibited.

Back to top

By Scott M. Kozel, Roads to the Future

(Created 11-10-1997, updated 2-19-2004)