A tractor-trailer load of money for road work is heading our way. Here’s what it will mean for the Morgantown area.
The roads in West Virginia are a lot like the weather: Everybody complains, but nobody does much about it.
But this year, Governor Jim Justice, the state Legislature, and the voters teamed up and did a lot about it. Altogether, legislation passed in the spring and a successful October road bond referendum are sending more than $250 million in state and federal road construction and paving dollars to Monongalia County over the coming five years—seven or eight times what was otherwise expected.
It’s none too soon. “We’re choking ourselves to death. We can’t move,” says Delegate Joe Statler, who serves on the state House of Delegates Roads and Transportation Committee. “When Mylan built where they are”—that’s on Chestnut Ridge Road, between the hospitals— “there was nothing out there, and they could get quickly to the interstate. Now it can take 35 to 40 minutes. If you want businesses to come into the area, they’ve got to be able to get to transportation.”
That’s true for potential residents, too. “We forget what the first impression for visitors is when they come down Don Knotts Boulevard or come in from the north side, on Beechurst, or they’re on the Mileground,” says Steve LaCagnin, president of the Morgantown Area Chamber of Commerce, which championed the road bond referendum energetically. “When we’re trying to recruit the best doctors and engineers and others to come into this community to make lives for their families, we need to put our best foot forward.”
In 2013, when the Morgantown Monongalia Metropolitan Planning Organization (MMMPO) listed hundreds of millions of dollars of priority projects in its most recent Long-Range Transportation Plan, it seemed more aspirational than realistic. But all this new funding is a game-changer, LaCagnin says. “This is going to provide infrastructure that we’ve talked about for a long time but it was 30 years away. Now it’s five years away.”
The Morgantown area started seeing immediate benefits, with paving in 2017 that wouldn’t have been possible before the new funding was authorized. In town, this includes work in high-traffic areas like Van Voorhis and on long-neglected areas like Irwin Street near the stadium and Dughill Road in Sabraton. Outside town, paving was done in the towns of Maidsville and Blacksville. All of this came from accelerated federal Transportation Improvement Plan funding and state SB1006 Enhanced Funding (see sidebar).
Set for 2018
Two big projects will be completed in 2018 using GARVEE bonds. “We have two major projects ready to go,” says Donald Williams, the West Virginia Department of Transportation engineer heading up our six-county District 4. “A massive project on I-79 from Blue Horizon Drive to the Pennsylvania state line—that’s a complete rehab and nine-year warranty—and the replacement of the Arnettsville bridge. That’s $18.3 million of projects.”
Meanwhile, for 2019 and after
Behind the scenes, with funding on its way sooner than expected, detailed engineering has gotten underway for bigger improvement projects in town. In addition to continued widening of the Mileground all the way from Airport Road to the roundabout, these include:
Green Bag Road between Kingwood Pike and White Park—this will help the effort to encourage traffic, especially large trucks, to go around town rather than through downtown;
Van Voorhis Road from West Run Road to Bakers Ridge Road—this project and the next one listed will ease morning and evening commutes on the north side of town;
West Run Road between Stewartstown Road and U.S. 119. “We didn’t think funding would be there to get this end of West Run done,” says MMMPO Executive Director Bill Austin. “The bond referendum is letting us do a project here that we didn’t think would be feasible.”
These will likely get underway during the 2019 construction season. Looking ahead to 2020 and 2021, we can expect to see major improvements to the Star City I-79 interchange and extending from there along Chaplin Hill Road toward Mylan Park.
What about that bridge?
Yes, that bridge we’ve been hearing about, the third bridge over the Monongahela River, is part of this, too. Although the bridge and a new access to I-79, sometimes called a northern bypass, have been touted over the past year and longer as critical to Morgantown’s future, we weren’t realistically expecting to see that $100 million–plus project built before 2040.
Now it may be just around the corner, depending on what’s discovered in the planning phase.
“Resurfacing and widening projects, they’re very straightforward,” Williams says. “But this one, we’re going through virgin areas. It might go through a big old strip mine or an abandoned waste site or some unique historical find. We’re going to do preliminary engineering, and they’ll look at different routes.”
Even so, he gives a surprising answer to the “What’s the soonest?” question. “I would guess, if everything went well and there were no roadblocks, you could see it under construction in maybe 18 to 24 months.” That is, in 2019. “It could be done in four years if we don’t run into things that impede it.”
Although the greatest share of all of this funding is coming into Morgantown and the adjacent areas, some work will be done out in the county. “Mr. Williams shared with me his vision that, in three years, Route 7 will be paved from Morgantown to the Wetzel County line,” Statler says. “I would love to see that done.” Some of the in- and near-town projects will benefit out-of-town residents, too. “People like myself, we’re in and out of there. I hate to get caught in traffic and tied up, and that northern bypass will help the western end of the county.”
Mountainlair crosswalk bridge? PRT extension?
Those would be nice, but no. Not this time around. What the experts do say is that, by directing state dollars to a lot of projects that we were going to have to wait for federal dollars for, the road bond is freeing up future federal funds for other uses.
“Federal funds can be used for pedestrian facilities, bike facilities, those sorts of things,” Austin says. “So there’s a chance that, once the state Department of Transportation starts programming those future federal funds that come available, alternative forms of transportation may have access to them.”
No pain, no pavement
We wanted this, and now we’re getting it. Rough roads will be resurfaced and congested areas will be widened and diverted—in time.
“With work comes delays,” says Williams, who himself lives in Morgantown and will be inconvenienced with the rest of us. “Folks are going to have to realize that construction has its own life to it. There will probably be a few years that we’re going to see a lot traffic, traffic drums, contractors, and delays, and we ask people to be very patient with that. When it’s done, it’s going to be beautiful.”
So leave yourself a little extra time during the coming construction seasons. Plan to stream some soothing music or load your favorite podcasts. Maybe use your delay time on the road to learn a language. And smile and wave at road workers as you drive by. Remember, we asked for this.