Charles L. Miller stepped down as highway commissioner in 1984, and Fred VanKirk was appointed acting commissioner. At the changing-of-the-guard ceremony, Mr. VanKirk accepted the position by saying, "Everyone else in West Virginia acts like he's the highway commissioner, so I might as well act like it, too."
West Virginia enjoyed a long run of qualified highway commissioners beginning in 1969 with Bill Ritchie and continuing with Charlie Miller and Fred VanKirk. The number one priority of each man was completion of the Interstate system, and they should be remembered for finishing the job.
Today, motorists take the Interstate system for granted. And that is a shame. For example, before I-79 was built, the trip from Charleston to Morgantown took six hours, and every mile had its share of grueling curves and blind passing zones. The drive now takes a little over two hours and can hardly be called challenging.
In the 1960s, Interstate construction was spotty. The main reason for this was the sad fact that highway commissioner Burl Sawyers (1961-1968) and his deputy, Vincent Johnkoski, were extortionists, crimes for which they were later convicted.
West Virginia is a tough place to build high-speed highways. Our terrain is notoriously unforgiving; our weather limits the construction season. The cost of building a mile of Interstate in West Virginia was comparatively one of the highest in the United States because of the quantity of earth that had to be moved and the numerous stream and river crossings.
I always have felt that our Interstate highways are a remarkable engineering achievement that have been overlooked and underappreciated. That's especially so because the three aforementioned highway commissioners protected the highway budget and stayed with the plan to finish every mile of Interstate in timely fashion.
We are now living in a different era -- the earmark era. Every politician in the land tries to earmark funds for a pet project. The drawback to this hodgepodge of earmarks is that there is no plan for the public good -- there are just scattered pet projects, such as Alaska's proposed bridge to nowhere.
Were it just Alaskans earmarking Alaskan funds, we wouldn't care. But earmarks are now the preferred passion of every legislator and executive. Twenty-four years ago, Fred VanKirk could joke about everyone acting like a highway commissioner. Now it's not a laughing matter.
My congressional district has a very visible earmark project -- the Gateway Connector highway at Fairmont. The project connects I-79 to the High Level Bridge and will assuredly save downtown Fairmont from further deterioration after it opens in 2010 or 2011.
The highway is only 1.5 miles long, but it carries an estimated price tag of $155 million. The roadway also features two traffic circles. Many people refer to these circles as "roundabouts," but I prefer "circles" lest I infer the road is a roundabout way to get to downtown Fairmont.
I think the traffic circles were engineered to provide holding patterns for westbound traffic waiting for a green light to cross the bridge. And further, I guess that stoplight is the "gateway" in "Gateway Connector."
I am taking this potshot to make a point. The $155 million could have easily finished Morgantown's 705 to I-68 connector -- a road that has been desperately needed for two decades. The Gateway money could have provided seed capital for 100 machine shops. The money could have built more than 700,000 square feet of new office space in Software Valley.
But no matter how earmark money is spent, it generally is wasted because it neither furthers the completion of an overall plan nor does it contribute to a coordinated, meaningful infrastructure.
The native sons of Marion County, whose ranks include our governor and First District congressman, undoubtedly will feel that I am picking on them personally. But I am not. I am criticizing the whole notion of earmark spending as being irresponsible.
When the Interstate highway system was laid out, it was planned from coast to coast with a purpose for each and every mile. Had Congress designed the Interstate system using the earmark method, then every congressional district would have a few miles of four-lane highway, and none of it would be interconnected.
If you don't hear from me for a while, please don't worry as I will be writing my next column from the tropics. A Fairmont travel agency is planning my vacation stay at a Guantanamo Bay resort hotel, where I will be learning a new sport called waterboarding.