A road that has been on the drawing board for more than 40 years will not only bring travelers through some of the state's most scenic areas, but it also will be a beautiful boost for the state's economy.
"I've always said that when Corridor H is completed, it will literally change West Virginia in all kinds of ways, and all of them for the better," said U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. "It would be an economic powerhouse."
With that knowledge and a truckload of data to support it, economic professionals, elected officials and other citizens have banded together to form the Corridor H Authority. This group hopes to have the road's completion date pushed up by 15 years, bringing the stretch of highway that would connect Interstate 79 near Weston to the I-66/I-81 junction near Front Royal, Va., to its fully constructed length by 2020.
The road is complete from Weston to just past Elkins, and other parts in Grant and Hardy counties are finished. The holdup is mostly through Tucker County, where evidence of the existence of the West Virginia Northern Flying Squirrel was found. That animal is on the federally endangered species list.
"We need to get that middle part finished," said Steve Foster, who heads up the Corridor H Authority. "We have clientele losing business because they couldn't compete in being able to ship products economically around the world."
When the highway is completed, it would allow for access to an inland port in Front Royal, speeding up the process in which goods could be taken to outbound ships in Norfolk, Va. Heavy trucks currently head to ports in the Baltimore area - a long, drawn-out process that slows international shipping.
"Corridor H is an important piece to link West Virginia to the East Coast," said Earl Gohl, co-chairman of the Appalachian Regional Commission.
A segment connecting Davis to Mount Storm is expected to be completed some time this year, making the highway about 75 percent complete with only about 32 miles left.
Officials are expecting that completion rate to increase to 87 percent by 2018 as other construction projects are awarded and finished. The stretch from Wardensville to the Virginia state line is being delayed while West Virginia transportation leaders await Virginia to approve construction projects on the other side of the border.
"Corridor H is a tremendous opportunity for the state of West Virginia and also for the economic viability of the country," said U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.
The U.S. Surface Transportation Bill, which passed last year, makes the Appalachian Corridor System a national priority. The bill adjusted the portion of matching federal funds from 80 percent to a 100 percent share through 2021. The highway also could benefit from the recent appointment of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to a leadership position with the ARC. Tomblin was chosen as the co-chair by the 12 governors whose states make up Appalachia.
"We're getting there," Foster said. "It's not a stretch to say we can reach completion by 2020, with the backing of the ARC. With the passage of the Surface Transportation bill and Gov. Tomblin in a leadership position, I'd say we've got a great shot at it."
The history of Corridor H began in 1965 with the passing of the Appalachian Regional Development Act. The act called for the building of 23 of highways and parkways throughout Appalachia. Six of those corridors would pass through West Virginia. Five of those corridors have been completed: Corridor D, which followed U.S. 50 from Cincinnati to Interstate 79 in Bridgeport; Corridor E, which is now Interstate 68 from Morgantown to Hancock, Md.; Corridor G, which is U.S. 119 from Charleston to Pikeville, Ky.; Corridor L, which is U.S. 19 from Beckley to Sutton; and Corridor Q, which runs from Christiansburg, Va., to Pikeville, Ky., following U.S. 52, 19 and 480 through southern West Virginia.
Corridor H, which originally sought to connect I-79 in Weston to I-81near Strasburg, Va., has been the most controversial of the Appalachian corridors. Its development has seen as many twists and turns as the mountainous roads it is proposed to replace.
Construction began in 1974 near Weston, and designers had two proposed routes. The route would follow U.S. 33 to Seneca Rocks and then either cross the Shenandoah Mountains to New Market, Va., or go toward Moorefield and into Strasburg, Va., by following Route 55.
Environmental groups began raising concerns in the 1980s, citing the need to protect the area around Shavers Fork. Other critics of the highway argued the four-lane road did not pass through any metropolitan areas. A group known as Corridor H Alternatives received a boost when Virginia officials announced in 1995 that they were not interested in building their state's small portion of the road. The group also filed a federal lawsuit in 1995, claiming that the state did not study improving existing roads and that it ignored the impact the highway would have on historical Civil War battle sites in Corricks Ford and Mooresville.
The U.S. District Court ruled in favor of the state, though that decision was appealed. A second lawsuit was filed in 1998, but was dismissed about a year later.
Construction in West Virginia, however, was continuing, though in a piecemeal fashion. Between 1982 and 1994, nearly 40 miles of road was built from Weston to Elkins.
"Corridor H is, pure and simple, about jobs," Foster said. "It's been 40 years in the making. It's about time to get the road done."