In February 1991, then U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd announced that he had secured $110 million in federal funds for a "demonstration project" to upgrade W.Va. 9 from two lanes to four between Martinsburg and the Loudoun County, Va., line atop the Blue Ridge Mountain.
Nineteen-and-a-half years later the portion of the road between Martinsburg and Charles Town (about two thirds of the total) was finally open to traffic. The final section of that portion (the part between Kearneysville and Opequon Creek) was opened to traffic about a month ago.
The portion between Charles Town and the Loudoun County line will be open in two to two-and-a-half years. The section between Charles Town and the Shenandoah River is complete now, except for paving. The section between the Shenandoah and the crest of the Blue Ridge is under construction and will be finished in about a year. The new four-lane bridge over the Shenandoah was just put under contract and will take a bit over two years to complete.
None of this portion of the road will be open to traffic until all of it is ready. I think that makes sense because the course of this entire portion of the new road is only near the existing W.Va. 9 at each end.
So, barring any further delays, the road will be finished about 22 years after Byrd nailed down what he thought at the time was enough money for the 80 percent federal share of the total cost of the road (the state was required to come up with the remaining 20 percent, or $22 million). How time flies.
The first 10 years saw attempts by opponents of the road to stop it. This was the cause of much of the delay. I didn't think a very high percentage of people in Jefferson and Berkeley counties opposed construction of the road (this was later confirmed by an extensive scientific poll which showed about 75 percent in favor,10 percent against and 15 percent undecided). But many of the opponents were quite intense in their opposition.
They were able to use the federal rules at the time to delay the beginning of the project. I don't fault them for this, even though I was a strong proponent of the upgrade from Day One. It was their right as citizens to do what they could to stop the construction, and they exercised it. I did fault the federal rules at the time for permitting as much delay as we had.
The same thing was happening in Pennsylvania at the time. A $600 million four-lane road was stopped for many years. The federal government has since modified its rules to shorten the time for all the reviews required (which was what enabled opponents to effectively delay what they didn't like). Environmental studies, historic preservation studies, archaeological studies and other such reviews must now be done concurrently rather than consecutively.
But that's not the only cause of the delay. Folks from other parts of the state wanted new roads built for them as well. Some, like the Appalachian Corridor H highway and U.S. 35, are, in my view, critically important to West Virginia moving into the mainstream of the American economy. But others are not so critical.
Roadbuilding is one of the most political of undertakings. Legislators, county commissioners, mayors, city councilpeople and local economic development folks are always lobbying whomever happens to be governor to build "my" road, not the roads desired in other parts of the state.
At some point in the future we may be able to find enough money to begin to upgrade W.Va. 9 to four lanes west of Martinsburg. But the state road fund is presently woefully short of money to do what is already planned.
Many of our roads are well behind schedule for maintenance. Our bridges are among the worst maintained in the nation. A higher percentage of our bridges are in substandard condition than those of all but four other states, and the nation as a whole has too many poorly maintained bridges.
Meanwhile, a road that was originally to cost $132 million to build will end up costing about $345 million because of far too many years of delay and changes made to meet objections. The 12 miles that is already open cost $147 million. The 6 miles yet to be opened will cost close to $200 million. The reason for the discrepancy is the shorter portion crosses a major river and climbs a mountain, while the longer portion was built over relatively flat land and only had to cross a creek.