Finding the Money to Extend I-68 to Marshall County

When President Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized the Federal Highway Act of 1956, the goal was to create a connective route of interstate highways for national defense and security. Since then, the Eisenhower Interstate Highway system has become one of the most critical components of the American economy, allowing for millions of people to move about the country, for businesses to ship and transport goods and even to this day, it still allows for strategic usage by the Department of Defense and other government agencies for national defense or to prepare for natural disasters.

In West Virginia, the interstate highway system plays a critical role. Interstates 79, 77 and 64 provide inland parts of the state with easy access to other parts of the state and neighboring states. Interstates 70, 68 and 81 all direct and steer a steady flow of commerce, business and travelers through the state. West Virginia’s nearly 600 miles of interstate highways help to connect the state, both internally and externally.

Highways and the interstate system have not changed much in recent years in West Virginia. Often, a discussion will re-emerge about the potential to build a new highway, and in some cases, the project is motion. For Corridor H, the long dream eventually became a reality, and the construction of the highway that will link Weston to Strasburg, Va. is well underway. Highway projects not only have the potential to link certain geographic areas, but they also have a serious potential to connect booming economic areas as well.

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend the North-Central West Virginia Economic Outlook Conference hosted by the West Virginia University College of Business and Economics’ Bureau of Business and Economic Research. While attending this year’s summit in Morgantown, I was presented with fascinating information about the economic condition of our state and about the potential for future economic growth and development in West Virginia.

But, the stars soon began to align when John Deskins, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research, gave his presentation about the economic outlook for North-Central West Virginia. Deskins highlighted the various “regional economies” that exist in West Virginia — one of them being the Natural Gas Boom Region which is made up of Ohio, Marshall, Wetzel, Tyler, Doddridge and Ritchie counties. Per the BBER’s research presented at the economic outlook conference, real wages were up by a factor of 12 percent since the first quarter of 2010 in this region; employment jumped by 1 percent. Even more telling, employment growth in the top 10 gas-producing counties in West Virginia trended significantly higher than employment growth in the state.

Likewise, when looking at North-Central, which is made up of Monongalia, Preston, Harrison, Taylor and Marion counties, the data was even more promising; real wages had increased by 13 percent and employment was up by 6 percent. Nonetheless, for a state that is being hit hard by the decline of the coal industry, economic news of this nature was a welcomed sign.

When I got to thinking, I realized a lot of West Virginia’s major economic areas are connected by a modern highway system — whether they are federal interstates, U.S. highways or four-lane state roads. For example, Metro Valley is connected to Parkersburg via I-77; North-Central via I-79; and New River Gorge via I-77/64. Over in the Eastern Panhandle, I-81 and State Route 9 connect that geographic internally and externally to Maryland, Virginia and the bustling D.C. market.

But, what’s missing in this list of geographic areas and the highways that connect them?

It’s simple. No major, direct road connects North-Central West Virginia to the Natural Gas Boom Region. Yes, there are, in fact, roads that do connect these areas, but are they the types of roads that allow for heavy equipment or mass amounts of traffic? Do they save time for a business or individual looking to go from point A to point B?

Connect the dots.

In the 1990s, there was a robust discussion about extending I-68 from Morgantown to Moundsville — the “capital” of what is now the Natural Gas Boom Region. Furthermore, in 2003, the Federal Highway Administration approved of the I-68 extension, which would have paved the way for federal funding and for the road to become part of the National Highway System once it was complete.

As it went, the belt was being tightened in Washington, D.C. The project was never granted funding and ground was never broken. Hindsight is 20/20, and if we look back now at what could have been with a possible I-68 expansion into the heart of the gas boom region, we might not have ever guessed that the gas boom would have been so prevalent and robust as it is today.

But, that doesn’t mean we should give up on a superhighway that could connect two of the fastest-growing economic areas in our state. Recently, conversations have been initiated on numerous fronts about the need for increased investment in new infrastructure in West Virginia. Federal, state and local officials are lobbying for highway projects across the state, such as I-73 in the southern coalfields, but the same issue that brought the I-68 extension to a halt in 2003 is rearing its head again — funding.

As PTT Global Chemical considers building a $5.75 billion ethane cracker plant in eastern Ohio near the terminus of a proposed I-68 expansion, it is worth noting that other ethane crackers like the proposed PTT plant yield enormous economic benefit. The completion of this section of I-68 from this proposed PTT cracker across from Moundsville to Morgantown would open up a direct route for the plant’s products to Baltimore Harbor that would then be within a one-day transportation ring on the far Eastern side via I-68.

The potential return on investment looks even that much greater. I-68 could help to send economic growth off the charts.

In noting the lack of federal and state funding for highway construction, some in the state have turned to alternative sources of funding to help build the superhighway. Marshall County Commissioner Bob Miller proposed Senate Bill 210 and Senate Joint Resolution 4 in January 2017. Miller’s legislation would help to free up local funds from current state code which restricts where and how such funds can be used. In short, excess money from new large commercial investments that qualify for huge discounts offered under the “cracker bill” only, when collections return to the counties, can be used for local infrastructure improvements, like sewers and water lines. The usage leftover in Marshall County could potentially be used to help start the construction of I-68.

In the 1950s, the highway system was viewed in the frame of national security and defense. In 2016, we are viewing highways in West Virginia in terms of the tremendous economic payout that they could provide to various geographic areas. When weighing proposed highway projects in West Virginia, it is crucial to utilize a cost-benefit analysis when prioritizing funding and completion. In terms of benefits, industry leaders, elected officials and other key stakeholders ought to seek out conclusive data, in real economic and financial terms, to find out the extent to which a highway I-68, and all highways for that matter, can help to benefit our state.

Blake Humphrey, of Wheeling, is a student at West Virginia University, majoring in political science and economics. He is a former member of the WVU Student Government Association Board of Governors. His website is BlakeHumphrey.org.

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