MASON COUNTY, W.Va. – A member of the Mason County Commission tells MetroNews he’s newly optimistic about expansion plans for Route 35 after talking with state officials this week.
“We are closer now….than we’ve ever been before and it puts a smile on my face,” Rick Handley said of plans to widen a 14.6 mile stretch of Route 35.
It’s a road that has seen a list of deadly accidents over the years. Just this week, a Missouri truck driver was cited for driving too fast on it following a wreck that involved two tractor trailers, including his truck, and a school bus. Nine students were treated for injuries.
“It is pretty bad and the bad part of it is you go from a four-lane and you’re going 70 miles per hour and then you go down to a two-lane which you’re supposed to go 55 miles per hour,” Handley said. “It’s the only 14.6 miles of two-lane road between Michigan and Florida.”
He is among the many officials and residents who have been sounding the alarms about the dangers of Route 35 for years. The problem, up to now, has been finding funding for four-lane construction.
On Tuesday, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin announced the start what could be West Virginia’s first public-private partnership (PPP) for a highway project — 3.3 miles of the Coalfields Expressway in southern West Virginia that will eventually connect the existing highway that begins at Interstate 64/Interstate 77 in Beckley to Mullens.
The state plans to advertise soon for private partners on the project with work tentatively set to begin in the spring.
DOH officials have said what is happening with the Coalfields Expressway could serve as a model for Route 35 and other future road projects.
On Wednesday, DOH officials said the agency had almost completed the right of way, or property buying, process for Route 35 while work to update environmental documents continues.
Early indications are three contracts will be needed for the expansion — two grade and drain contracts to build the road bed at an estimated $80 million each and one paving project at an estimated $50 million. Five bridges will also have to built for that stretch of highway.
The first of the grade and drain contracts could be put out for bid as soon as this fall, but because the details have not yet been finalized, the best case scenario, according to what Handley said the DOH has told him, would see the completion of the four-lane in Mason County within the next four years.
Handley said he’s grateful there’s at least some kind of plan for the long-delayed project. “I’m really, really higher than a kite about this project now,” Handley said on Wednesday’s MetroNews “Talkline.”
The Legislature approved changes to the Public-Private Transportation Facilities Act last year which cleared the way for more such private partnerships to build roads in West Virginia now that state and federal funds are running short.
With a PPP, in general, the state would partner with private companies for upfront funding and then pay off road projects in established installments.