MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Local leaders in Monongalia County want to make sure that the projects included in last month’s Roads to Prosperity Amendment are not ignored — particularly a proposed I-79 northern connector project that would create a new interchange in West Virginia north of Exit 155.
The Monongalia County Commission sent a letter encouraging their support for those projects to the Department of Transportation in the wake of the Roads to Prosperity Amendment vote — though the debate itself remains a point of confusion for some.
“I’m not really sure why we really are at this point where we need to reaffirm what the voters of Mon County overwhelmingly displayed just a few weeks ago,” Commissioner Sean Sikora said Wednesday on Morgantown AM.
But, Sikora said, he signed the letter anyway, ensuring there was no doubt that he supported the package of projects included in Monongalia County’s apportionment of the Roads to Prosperity Amendment. That includes the much ballyhooed and occasionally controversial I-79 northern connector project, which drew some heavy criticism in the last few weeks leading up to the special election.
“We have consensus in regard to this particular project,” Sikora said. “As coming on as a Commissioner, one of my duties is being a member of the MMMPO (Metropolitan Planning Organization), and we’ve been talking about this since I came on in January. The I-79 access study started in April 2015.”
That project, which would add a new interchange to I-79 and an additional access for commuters, has been subject to renewed speculation since Delegate Joe Statler (R – Monongalia, 51) spoke before County Commission last week.
“[Statler] told us that the state DOH had the impression that we’re not all behind the I-79 connector project, and [we] felt like we needed to reaffirm our support so we can make sure this project stays a high priority for Mon County,” Sikora said.
Later that week, County Commissioner Tom Bloom pointed the blame at Delegate Cindy Frich (R – Monongalia, 51), who orchestrated a last-minute town hall in Star City in the final days before the Oct. 7 special election. Bloom suggested Frich was in the ear of the DOT and DOH regarding the connector project — an allegation Frich denied.
This week, Sikora reaffirmed what he’d been told by Delegate Joe Statler: that there was a belief among some officials in the DOH and DOT that there wasn’t full consensus on the Roads to Prosperity Amendment projects in Monongalia County.
“It’s rare where you can find this many people in approval of something,” Sikora said. “Even if you go back and look at the bond vote, I don’t know if we’re ever going to find in our lifetime again something that comes up for vote — and we had 40 of 41 precincts vote for this.”
In total, more than 80 percent of the voters in Monongalia County checked ‘yes’ during the October special election. More so, Sikora said, the breakdown of support came in areas where the I-79 northern connector could have a major impact.
“Shout out to precinct 23, which is in Star City,” Sikora said. “They had a 19 percent turnout, and they were 89 percent in favor of the bond. Star City gets turned into a parking lot every day.”
That’s part of what the I-79 northern connector would try and fix — the traffic issues that have taken over the most urbanized areas of Monongalia County.
“I’m a little bit befuddled as to why we’re going through this process now to affirm our support, but we’re going to do everything we can to make sure that this project stays on the front burner.”
Sikora also said Precinct 81, one of the areas most likely to be impacted by the proposed I-79 connector project, enjoyed 75 percent support for the bond.
“I’m not really seeing where the resistance to this alternative is coming from,” Sikora said.
Alternative 12 in the I-79 access study, proposed by the MPO, uses a corridor that likely goes through the Baker’s Ridge area. That has drawn criticism, and prompted Delegate Frich to send out a flyer that suggested homes or property would be devalued or seized. That claim drew widespread condemnation before the special election last month — with many local officials who support the road bond claiming that Frich was manipulating the facts.