The new four-lane West Virginia Route 9 is complete from Martinsburg to Charles Town and the rest of that road (to the Loudoun County, Va. line atop the Blue Ridge Mountains) is under construction. Now more and more people are asking me what can be done about U.S. Route 340.
U.S. 340 runs from Frederick, Md. to Front Royal, Va. All of it is four lanes (and has been for many years) except for two stretches, one of about three miles and the other of about five miles. The longer of the two stretches is entirely in Jefferson County and most of the shorter stretch is in Jefferson. About a half mile of that three-mile stretch is in Virginia and another half mile is in Maryland (the long bridge over the Potomac River).
The longer stretch is southwest of Charles Town on the way to Berryville, Va. The West Virginia Division of Highways (DOH) has completed the design work on that part; it's officially scheduled and it'll be built as soon as funding becomes available. It's relatively inexpensive to build (as roads go, anyway) since the land is flat by West Virginia standards and there are no major streams to cross.
The three-mile section at the Harpers Ferry Gap is another story. That part will cost an arm and a leg to build, no matter how it is to be done. There are numerous ideas about how it should be built. I think we need to get moving on selecting an idea and making that road four-lane.
The National Park Service is obviously concerned that the four-laning of 340 not disturb the viewshed of the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. We should all be equally concerned. Even were that not a consideration, building this section of roadway would be expensive. Because of this legitimate concern, building it will be even more expensive. But build it we must.
Many Jefferson Countians commute to jobs in Maryland via this road and they need the road to be four-lane. Many of the rest of us travel that way periodically for various reasons, and we need it to be four-lane.
More important politically, all of West Virginia needs that road to be four-lane, because the Harpers Ferry Gap is the entry point for many tourists coming to West Virginia. West Virginia depends on tourism for an economy more now than ever, and the need to do so will grow. We won't get the tourists if they can't get through the gap. Unfortunately, most of the rest of West Virginia doesn't yet understand how desperately our state needs for that road to be four-lane.
In addition to the expense, there are two other states involved. Virginia has expressed no interest in upgrading its half mile to four lanes. Maryland is interested, because Maryland appreciates all the West Virginians who come to work in that state.
Some think the problem of the Harpers Ferry bottleneck would be solved if Virginia would remove the traffic light at the intersection of 340 and VA Route 671. Maybe now, but I'm convinced it won't solve the problem a few years from now.
Before the great flood of 1936, which washed out all the bridges at Harpers Ferry, U.S. 340 ran directly from Maryland to West Virginia and did not go through Virginia. That might be the case again. One of the ideas for improving 340 to four lanes is to take it over Maryland Heights at a discreet distance from the boundary of the Harpers Ferry National Park and over the Potomac at a new crossing upstream from Harpers Ferry. It would then rejoin the existing 340 somewhere near Halltown.
Where will we get the at least $400 million it will take to build such a road? If Maryland and West Virginia split the cost each state would pay at least $200 million. That's what it's costing us to build all 13 miles of WV 9. West Virginia gets about $1 billion each year from the federal government for road building. Some of that is for building new roads and the rest is for maintenance and repair of existing ones.
Each $4 of federal money spent must be matched by $1 of state funds. So that means this three miles of new road will take $160 million federal and $40 million state from each of the two states, presuming the lowest realistic figure for the cost of the road. All of West Virginia's federal and state money for new road building over at least the next half dozen years is already spoken for.
President Barack Obama's Deficit Reduction Commission, led by former Republican U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming and President Bill Clinton's former Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, has recommended a 15-cent-per-gallon increase in the federal gasoline tax. Were this to be enacted it would increase considerably the federal highway money coming to West Virginia. But where would we find additional state money for the 20 percent "match?"
This is part of why I have proposed that West Virginia increase its gasoline tax. We would need a 4-cent increase to draw down all the new federal highway money available under this scenario.
But there is much opposition to the Deficit Commission's plan. What if there is no new federal highway money? Would Jefferson Countians be willing to put up with tolls on the new three miles of four-lane road in order to finance it?
Recently the DOH let a contract on the remaining 14 miles of the four-lane U.S. 35 in Mason County. That road is four lanes all through Ohio, narrows to two lanes as it enters West Virginia and expands again to four lanes after 16 miles of two-lane road on the way to Charleston. The DOH only chose and hired the contractor to build the road after the Mason County Commission voted 2-1 to approve tolls on the new road.
After the contract was signed, one of the Mason County commissioners asked to change his vote. The Commission's new vote was 2-1 against tolls. The DOH said, "Sorry, too late, we've already signed the contract." The issue is now in court.
I don't want that to happen here in Jefferson County. We in the Legislature (and our county commissioners, as well) need to know what folks in our county think about using tolls to make Route 340 four-lane at Harpers Ferry.
So, to talk about this and any other issue before the Legislature that anyone wants to talk about, I'll be having my usual two town meetings in January.
The first one will be Monday, Jan. 3, at the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies at Shepherd University. The meeting will start at 7:30 p.m. and end by 9 p.m.
The Harpers Ferry-Bolivar area meeting will take place Saturday, Jan. 15 from 1 to 2:30 p.m. at the Harpers Ferry Town Hall. The meeting will take place upstairs; an elevator will be working for those who need it.