Last week's column on the idea of expanding U.S. Route 340 to four lanes over its entire length has engendered quite a bit of interest.
About a half dozen people had spoken to me about it within 48 hours of its publication. I'm tempted to tell you what opinions they have expressed, but experience and caution tell me to wait a few weeks to get a more complete picture of the thinking of our district.
However, I think some specific questions people asked are worth mentioning.
Since the original expansion of U.S. 340 from Harpers Ferry to Charles Town in the 1970s, traffic lights have been installed at several of the interchanges. The installation of each one of these lights made sense from a safety standpoint. All the interchanges are "at-grade" interchanges and are therefore dangerous during high-speed traffic. There were fatal accidents at each of these interchanges before the installation of the lights.
But the cumulative effect of all these lights is to slow down traffic by considerable. Sometimes it's so slow that it results in "road rage," which is also dangerous.
What to do?
Many people have suggested to me that these at-grade interchanges need to be replaced by high-speed ones. This would mean constructing overpasses or underpasses, along with exit and entrance lanes, at each of these interchanges.
Building one such interchange would cost between $10 million and $20 million, depending on how it would be constructed (which would depend on the terrain at the location). So, we're talking about spending well upwards of $50 million to make all the interchanges between Harpers Ferry and Charles Town high-speed.
From whence cometh the cash?
We talked last week about how West Virginia's road fund is woefully underfunded. It's going to be several years before we get around to upgrading U.S. 340 to four lanes southwest of Charles Town to the Clarke County, Va. line. And that's already scheduled. Until some additional funding is found for the road fund, we're stuck.
Last week I asked if folks would be willing to put up with tolls on a new four-lane Route 340 past Harpers Ferry in order to build such a road.
Let me now add a "Part 2" to that question: Would folks be willing to put up with tolls on the entire length of U.S. 340 from Charles Town to Harpers Ferry were that the price of replacing the at-grade interchanges on the present U.S. 340 with high-speed overpasses or underpasses?
Would you accept Part 1, Part 2, both or neither? Doing one would, I think, increase the demand to do the other.
I suggested last week that building a new four-lane U.S. 340 past Harpers Ferry (a "Harpers Ferry bypass") might be accomplished without the participation of Virginia. We could work with Maryland and build the road over Maryland Heights at some distance from the boundary of the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park with a Potomac River crossing upstream of Harpers Ferry. One person asked me if the problem could be solved if such a road were just a two-lane bypass.
I answered that I presumed it needed to be four lanes because I doubted that Virginia would consent to making its half mile of the existing two-lane road unidirectional. People using Virginia Route 671 through Pleasant Valley in Loudoun County need to access 340 for both directions.
However, it did occur to me that we might initially build the new road as a two-laner, to save money. Some of the traffic on U.S. 340 would still use the existing road - it would be the "local" road for Harpers Ferry, Bolivar, the national park and Pleasant Valley. So we would be easing traffic by a lot with even just a two-lane Harpers Ferry bypass. Under this scenario, both the new two-lane bypass and the existing road would be bidirectional.
But if we were to do this, I think it would be essential that the land be purchased immediately, as part of the project, to permit the expansion of the new Harpers Ferry bypass to four lanes. It would eventually be needed.
I mentioned last week that the co-chairs of President Barack Obama's Deficit Reduction Commission (former Republican U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming and Erskine Bowles, chief of staff to former President Bill Clinton) had recommended increasing the federal gasoline tax by 15 cents-per-gallon. One person asked how would this help build roads if all that money were to go into deficit reduction.
I failed to say that these two deficit-reduction hawks had concluded that our country's roads and bridges are deteriorating so fast that this is one area of policy where we need, in their view, more government spending.
Of all the ways to get money for the road system, the gasoline tax is far and away the most cost-effective. A higher percentage of the gasoline tax goes into actual road building and maintenance than is true for any other source of money.
Much is made of West Virginia's current gasoline tax being higher than all but about a half dozen states. But this ignores the fact that West Virginia is one of only four states with no county road system (the others are Virginia, Delaware and North Carolina).
In the other 46 states, county property taxes are used to fund much of the road system. This is part of why West Virginia's residential real estate property taxes are among the half dozen lowest in the nation. It's also why Virginia's road fund is in even far more desperate straits than West Virginia's.
Ironically, right now the only healthy road systems in West Virginia are those of about 30 municipalities. These are the municipalities located in the four counties with racetrack-casinos. In Jefferson and the other three "racino" counties, money from slots and table games goes to municipalities to help fund capital improvements. The biggest capital expense for a municipality is street maintenance. For the forseeable future residents of Shepherdstown and the other four municipalities in Jefferson County will enjoy a dearth of potholes in their streets, while I and other folks living outside those municipalities will need to have the shock absorbers and front ends of our cars repaired much more often.
Don't forget our two town meetings to discuss the upcoming regular session of the State Legislature. The first will take place on Monday, Jan. 3 at the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies at Shepherd University. It will begin at 7:30 p.m. The second will be held on Saturday, Jan. 15, at the Harpers Ferry Town Hall. That meeting will start at 1 p.m.