"Road to Nowhere" set to be "Road to Mullens" by winter

Workers gather at a groundbreaking event to celebrate new paving work on the Coalfields Expressway in Raleigh and Wyoming counties through the Roads to Prosperity program Thursday. (Jenny Harnish/The Register-Herald)

Under an early summer Raleigh County sun, battered by wind and dust, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice spoke to a crowd of men and women in suits, blue jeans, hard hats and neon yellow safety vests.

The governor was in southern West Virginia to celebrate what he called both a good day and a pitiful day.

On one hand, Justice said he was excited to get a paving project to Mullens underway. On the other, he said he was dismayed that the project had just now gotten off the ground — 29 years after it was planned.

"The original grading of this section started approximately 10 to 12 years ago," the governor said.

The project, an 8.9-mile section of the Coalfields Expressway, will further the expressway from Slab Fork to Mullens, with the entirety of the project set to pass by Pineville, Welch and Bradshaw before entering Virginia.

"We have worn out a section of this road, worn it out before we got this built," Justice said after driving to the work site along the existing portions of the planned highway.

Setting a completion date of October for both the new portion to Mullens and repaving of the existing portions all the way to Beckley's VA Hospital, Justice lauded the entirety of the project as a connector — to bring the coalfields to the outside world and to allow the outside world into the coalfields.

While excited to open up construction to Mullens, Justice shared his belief that construction along the entire route needs to be fast-tracked.

Explaining that two phases, one between Mullens and past Pineville and other from beyond Welch to the Virginia border, have yet to be designed, Justice said he is setting a timeline of 10 months for that task to be completed.

"I can't function in thinking about 29 years," Justice said. "I can't do that. I try to do everything (in) 10 months."

Justice has more than impatience to spur on that timeline — he said he believes that the federal government is on the brink of launching a $1 trillion infrastructure program across the country.

With an ally in the White House, Justice said the state needs to be prepared for that day if it comes.

"If they announce a $1 trillion program, my first call is going to be to the president, to my friend," Justice said.

The governor also floated the idea of using metallurgical coal found along the route as a possible revenue bargaining chip for the highway moving forward. He told media the company that has been working on the project has produced a good deal of coal as a by-product of cutting through the steep terrain.

All in all, Justice said the completion of the work would be a massive boost to southern West Virginia and urged the audience to think big.

"It's right at our fingertips," Justice said.

While thinking big, the governor also took time to discuss the state's shift towards secondary road work.

Justice called Tom Smith, the state Secretary of Transportation he fired last month, a good man; Justice said his difference with Smith centered on the role of the Transportation Department and its direction.

"We understand you've got to be able to get to the convenience store and I've said it a million times," Justice said. "When the roads are torn up all to pieces, our secondary roads, we've got to do something about it. We've got to put maintenance first."

Jimmy Wriston, the acting Commissioner of Highways and the man who is tasked with making Justice's vision work, shared the same view.

"We're focused on maintenance, but as you can see, we're still going to deliver the Roads to Prosperity program," Wriston said. "We're going to get every job that we say we're going to get done, done."

Wriston also shared his belief that a completed Coalfields Expressway, more specifically the connection to Mullens, is a huge deal to southern West Virginia. 

With construction on the Mullens connection set to be completed in the fall, Wriston said he is pleasantly surprised on the work being completed on the back roads. He said he expects that work to be completed in a quick manner as well.

-- Email: mcombs@register-herald.com; follow on Twitter @mattcombsRH

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