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Boucher devising strategies to restore Coalfields Expressway funding

By STEPHEN IGO

U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., said Friday the Coalfields Expressway has "dominated my work" during the past week of an active agenda on Capitol Hill. "There's really not much I can say publicly at this point. I spent a tremendous amount of time on this matter this past week," he said.

On Wednesday, Boucher said he had a "lengthy" meeting with Virginia Secretary of Transportation Pierce Homer to begin pulling together strategies to restore federal funding to the project.

"We digested thoroughly the status of the Coalfields Expressway project and looked at ways together we can move the project forward, and we're still in conversations to that end," he said. Boucher and Homer will speak again next week to "further refine" strategies to convince the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to restore funding, he said.

The Coalfields Expressway will eventually link I-77/I-64/West Virginia Turnpike near Beckley, W.Va., to U.S. Route 23 near Pound in Wise County. Virginia's 51-mile portion enters Virginia in Buchanan County and traverses Russell and Dickenson counties into Wise County. The 80 percent federal share of the costs had been funded under the FHWA Special Experimental Projects-14 program, but the agency notified the state about three weeks ago that the project no longer qualifies for SEP-14 funding because of chronic construction delays. Boucher has said he is confident Virginia can make a case for restoration of SEP-14 funding. On Friday, he said he has also discussed the matter with Kellogg, Brown & Root, the contractor that inked the public-private partnership deal with Virginia in 2001 to build the highway. KBR's proposal to mine coal along the highway route, thus bringing down the construction costs of the project, is what secured SEP-14 funding in the first place.

"I have the benefit of their information and views on ways we can move the project forward," Boucher said. "I think that it's reasonable to say that their views are somewhat different than the state of Virginia. And there are a wide variety of locally interested parties, and their views are different than KBR's and the state's. But we're collecting a range of ideas and looking for a common denominator among the various proposals, (and) I am confident we will achieve that goal. It's going to take a little bit of time." Boucher said he wants to bring together "the most compelling case possible" for the FHWA to reconsider restoring SEP-14 funding, adding that doing so will "take a substantial amount of work."

Virginia's two major-party gubernatorial candidates, meanwhile, traded barbs during the week about who is to blame for the funding fiasco. Delacey Skinner, spokeswoman for the campaign of Democratic Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine, said Republican gubernatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore worked as a lobbyist for KBR so the subsidiary of the oil industry giant Halliburton could secure the private portion of the public-private venture that attracted SEP-14 funding. She said KBR's failure to meet critical construction deadlines during the past four years is what caused the FHWA to revoke funding.

Kilgore not only confirmed he helped represent KBR during the forging of the Coalfields Expressway contract with the state, but challenged Kaine to explain why nothing has been done to build the project during the past four years of the Gov. Mark Warner/Kaine administration. "I am proud of the work I did for the region. True, I did work on the contract with KBR. But this was one of those issues I could help Southwest Virginia," Kilgore said Friday. "We need the Coalfields Expressway for development reasons. You just need to drive on (State Route 83) to understand. The state put a lot of time and energy into this. (U.S. Sens. George Allen, John Warner and former Gov. Jim Gilmore) and all of us worked together time and time again on the Coalfields Expressway. And I make no apology of getting the Coalfields Expressway funded and, in fact, I am proud of the work I did."

Kilgore spokesman Tim Murtaugh said earlier in the week that Kaine "has been running around the state taking credit for every (good) little thing that happened in Virginia in the last four years. When something goes wrong, he's got to learn to take responsibility for that, too. If he's so influential to accomplish all these other things he claims, where was he when this highway was stagnating? And it's not a very good first order of business to find someone else to blame." Murtaugh said the public-private strategy to secure SEP-14 funding at all shows how "this was actually a very innovative way to do this. Coal is sold, and that drives down the cost of construction. It's the sort of thing we should embrace in Virginia. And if Tim Kaine can point to anything he's ever done to get this road built, I invite him to go ahead and provide it."

The public-private contract between Virginia and KBR was signed during Gilmore's last week in office. In the four years since, no construction has taken place although tens of millions of dollars have been spent for engineering, planning and right of way acquisition. Boucher said last week that federal funds are still available to continue that process, and the project will move forward one way or another. The FHWA urged Virginia to go through standard contract procedures rather than count on further SEP-14 funds.

Copyright July 03, 2005 Kingsport Times-News.

"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. There's no evidence anywhere that it works."

-- Delegate John A. Rollison III
R-Prince William County
House Transportation Committee chairman

Local politicians were shocked when the federal highway department pulled funding for the over-priced and questionable Coalfields Expressway. This 51 mile long pork-barrel road is touted as the future for the depressed coal counties of Southwest Virginia. Similar claims were made for US 23 through Wise, Russell, and Scott Counties, but has failed to create real private sector jobs in the region. There is no reason to believe this one will either, and the road construction itself and the billions in federal dollars is the real goal.

Also controversial is the "no-bid" sweetheart deal for Halliburton. (Yes, that Halliburton) Under some nonsense called "public-private partnership" (PPP) a firm can lobby Virginia politicians to build projects even if the projects are not needed.

 

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