The Register-Herald of Beckley published this editorial on June 24 regarding a shortage of funding for state highway authority offices:
Another highway advocate position for the region has been lost. Richard Browning, the longtime organizer and director of the Coalfields Expressway Authority, has resigned from that position due to a lack of funding.
Lawmakers in West Virginia eliminated funding for the executive director posts of the Coalfields Expressway and King Coal Highway three years ago. That led to the closure of the King Coal Highway Authority's office in Mingo County in 2017, and the retirement of former King Coal Highway Authority Executive Director Mike Mitchem.
Browning told the Daily Telegraph last week that he tried to keep the Coalfields Expressway Authority office in Wyoming County open, adding that he stretched money "... as far as I could." But the authority office eventually ran out of money. So he had to close the office and retire from the position earlier this year.
While the directors of both roadway projects have now retired from those positions, it should be noted that the respective King Coal Highway Authority and Coalfields Expressway authority boards continue to meet, and are still advocating for their respective projects. Of course, there is only so much the volunteers can do, particularly without an office, without state funding and without a full-time highway authority director.
We still think it is important for these positions to be refunded, and we urge lawmakers to reconsider these positions. The budget crisis in West Virginia is long over. The state does have more money to work with now than it did three years ago.
Once the $60 million King Coal Highway contract in Mercer County is completed come 2021, there needs to be a plan in place for continuing construction on the future Interstate 73/74/75 corridor in southern West Virginia. Is anyone working right now to plan out the next section of the King Coal Highway in Mercer and McDowell counties? A highway director can play a critical role in ensuring that such a plan is in place and assist with the search for local, state and federal dollars.
For his part, Browning is still hoping to see construction begin next year on a new segment of the Coalfields Expressway in McDowell County. He says the current plan is to create a section of the four-lane corridor from the federal prison at the Indian Ridge Industrial Park to the city limits of Welch. It's about an eight-mile section of the expressway he is hoping to see constructed.
The money for this work, $110 million, came from the sale of turnpike bonds. Even though he is no longer the highway director, Browning said he hopes to see dirt moving on the project next year. Still, he fears that the remaining $110 million in funds will not be enough to finish that eight-mile stretch of the expressway in Welch.
Browning says work on the preliminary design and securing rights of way is now proceeding on the McDowell County project.
Once again, it would be good to have a full-time director on hand to ensure that this critical section of the Coalfields Expressway, which will be the first-ever four-lane corridor in the history of McDowell County, will proceed as planned.
In the meantime, the burden of ensuring that construction continues on both the King Coal Highway and the Coalfields Expressway will fall upon the shoulders of the volunteer authority boards, our elected lawmakers in Charleston, and the respective county commissions in Mercer and McDowell.