The year was 1961. President John F. Kennedy rewarded West Virginia for its role in his bid for the White House by drawing a line from Pittsburgh to Charleston and calling it I-79. The road had not been contemplated when America laid out its version of the German Autobahn-the Interstates. But that oversight mattered little. Our stretch of I-79 was a political payback, pure and simple.
My father’s construction company won the contract to build the first section of I-79, essentially the South Fairmont interchange at exit 132. The interchange had already been planned as part of the new US250 bypass. In fact, one of the Tygart’s Valley River bridges had been completed before the groundbreaking for I-79 took place. And what a groundbreaking it was!
Gov. W. W. Barron, U. S. Senator Jennings Randolph, and JFK’s Commerce Secretary, Luther Hodges, were just three of the dignitaries who spoke to a crowd of several hundred. The highlight of the day’s activities was the actual groundbreaking. My father had purchased a new bulldozer for the occasion and the aforementioned dignitaries all took turns at the controls scraping away a few tons of earth. Screw the hand shovels! This was a big deal!
For those of you who live in Fairmont and have wondered for 45 years about the US250 bypass around your town, you now know that it was given up for a higher purpose. For everyone else, this "groundbreaking" vignette provides an informed look at how roads get built in West Virginia. Always remember this: The new king doesn’t have to finish what the old king started. The new king can do as he pleases.
In Morgantown, over a quarter-century has lapsed since an old king started building Route 705. But Route 705 has yet to be linked with I-68. During this interlude, other kings spent money on the Mon-Fayette Expressway. It, too, is unfinished. Morgantown is booming and desperately needs a completed 705 as well as a north bypass highway and a widened Beechurst Avenue in the downtown. How many more kings will it take to finish this patchwork quilt of a road map?
Clarksburg was promised a south bypass (Route 98) by the mid-1980’s. United Hospital Center fronts on that road. But rather than wait for another unfulfilled decade to pass, UHC decided to move out of the city to Jerry Dove Drive-a road that a former king built for the FBI center.
West Virginia has had a long history of changing its road priorities. You can see that history in the old two-lane primary roads. After negotiating miles of curves, you’ll come upon two miles of fairly straight road and then it’s back to the chicanes.
The West Virginia Turnpike best defines our highway metamorphosis-not even Charles Darwin could tell you what it’s supposed to look like when it’s full-grown. The Turnpike began as a two-lane, driver’s survival course but has morphed into a regional tourism commission that operates a flea market for the well-to-do traveler. What’s next? That much-needed horse center? Or the Glade Springs exit?
From my perspective in the northern part of the state, the King Coal Highway and Coalfields Expressway look like payoffs for the glory days of 120 per cent voter turnout. Had these roads been built in the 1950’s or 1960’s, there’s a good argument that they would have spurred regional commerce. Building them now is too little, too late for the coalfields economy and too bad for Jefferson and Berkeley, two growing counties that actually need better roads.
Well, at least our Interstate highways are complete. Unfortunately, the Interstates are designed to move people and goods from one end of the nation to the other. They are not local development highways, regardless of how many businesses locate at the exits.
In this century, West Virginia politicians need to forget about grandiose highway schemes and concentrate on improving the primary highway system. And to entice our future kings and their knaves to pursue that course of action, I recommend using this sure-fire approach-let them ride on the bulldozer at the groundbreaking ceremony.