- The Washington Times - Monday, January 6, 2003

Hundreds of miles separate the crowded suburbs of Northern Virginia and the rural mountains of southwestern Virginia, but four lanes and 51 miles might better represent the widening gulf between the two regions.
As transportation dollars evaporate and road projects are delayed, Northern Virginia legislators are taking a critical look at the Coalfields Expressway, a proposed $1.6 billion highway through three economically depressed southwestern counties.
"There's this powerful belief that somehow if you build a modern, full-service highway in an economically depressed area that it will bring economic growth and jobs to a region," Delegate John A. Rollison III, Prince William Republican and chairman of the House Transportation Committee, told the Northern Virginia Journal.
"There's no evidence anywhere that it works," Mr. Rollison said.
Rural legislators and business leaders said the expressway will boost economic development in a region suffering double-digit unemployment.
"The citizens of Northern Virginia need roads just to get around to get to work," said Delegate Terry G. Kilgore, Scott Republican. "We need roads for economic development or we're always going to have this high unemployment."
The Coalfields Expressway would meander 51 miles through Wise, Dickenson and Buchanan counties and link with the West Virginia highway of the same name.
"It is seen as a benefit to the entire multistate Appalachian region," said Brenda Waters, a spokeswoman in the Virginia Department of Transportation's Bristol office.
The Coalfields Expressway has one powerful ally in Gov. Mark R. Warner, a Democrat.
"He does believe it is critical to economic development in southwest Virginia," said Ellen Qualls, Mr. Warner's spokeswoman. "He is committed to moving forward with it."
In 1995 Congress labeled the Virginia Coalfields Expressway a high-priority corridor.
Five years later, the Virginia Commonwealth Transportation Board approved the road's route, and the Federal Highway Administration offered its endorsement the next year.
Last January, the state signed a Public-Private Transportation Act agreement with Houston-based Kellogg Brown & Root to design and build the highway.
In September VDOT signed a $30.6 million contract to have Kellogg Brown & Root do preliminary engineering for the first eight-mile stretch of the highway in Buchanan County.
That section will be funded by the Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal-state partnership that works to improve highways, education, telecommunications and business development in the region.
No other section of the expressway is scheduled for design or construction in VDOT's six-year plan. State officials hope the federal government, through the Appalachian Regional Commission, will eventually pay much of the road's cost.
Mr. Rollison said other road projects in undeveloped areas have not lived up to their billing, citing Route 58 just north of the North Carolina line, the Interstate 295 spur near Richmond and other new highways around the capital.
Northern Virginia delegates and senators plan to try to change the transportation funding formula to shift more money to the areas they think need it most: the urban north, Hampton Roads and the Interstate 81 corridor.
The existing formula uses vehicle miles traveled to indicate the need for primary, secondary and urban road funding.
Proponents of change say the system benefits the wide-open southwest.
A more accurate formula, Northern Virginians said, would place greater weight on the number of registered vehicles or population density.
Rural legislators are prepared to defend the current formula.
"Down here in southwestern Virginia, we just circle the wagons," Mr. Kilgore said. "We're used to fights."

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