For nearly three decades, Richard Browning has been working to have the Coalfields Expressway completed. It will be the first four-lane road for both Wyoming and McDowell counties.
A retired educator, a former state senator and member of the House of Delegates, Browning has served as the Coalfields Expressway Authority director for 21 years.
However, he has been a proponent of the road since 1989, when he and Rick Staton, then both House of Delegates members, introduced the legislative resolution that launched the four-lane highway.
Question: Plans for the road began long before that 1989 resolution, is that correct?
Answer: Actually, although Rick and I did talk about the priority of getting a new road in the county when we were campaigning in 1988, and followed through with the resolution in 1989 when we were elected, talk about the need for this road started in the decade of the ‘60s.
I had a document in my office at one point that supported this, and its somewhere in all the information that I have archived about the road.
It was known as the Beckley-to-Grundy Road at that time.
Question: Now, almost 30 years later, it’s finally coming into Wyoming County. What was your first reaction when that first county dirt was turned for the road?
Answer: I have been the eternal optimist for the road. Long ago, pessimists for the highway told me they would lie down in front of the first bull dozer because they were so sure we would never get started. No one did.
The highway has been my life’s work. I have had many ups and downs along the way and I have learned to not get too excited about good news and not too disappointed over bad news.
I have had a good board of directors supporting me over the years, and together, we have begged, borrowed, and stolen to get where we are.
We are at a point of winding down the Coalfields Expressway Authority because of a lack of funding from the legislature and state of West Virginia. Now, answering your question, I was very excited and proud when the first contract was finished and when the road opened to Slab Fork.
Those events are milestones in the evolution of this highway because they signify a lot of work by a lot of people. We are going to have another good day next summer when the road opens to Mullens.
Early on, the West Virginia Division of Highways did not want this road, and for many years, did not fund its construction other than providing a small match for the federal money we received through earmarks by U.S. Senator Robert Byrd and Congressman Nick Rahall.
Even that dried up when earmarks became a bad word in the Congress.
This road came about as a grassroots effort by many ordinary people, political leaders, civic organizations, and other entities, like your newspaper, in the three counties it traverses.
I think we have moved up a little on the list of priorities at the West Virginia Division of Highways, but to this day, we do not receive the attention we deserve as a region that has given so much to this state and country in the form of lives and energy production.
Question: How long ago did that first section of road open in Raleigh County?
Answer: My records show the section from Sophia to Slab Fork opened early in 2009.
Question: When do you think drivers will be able to use the road into Mullens?
Answer: According to the West Virginia Division of Highways’ schedule, the road should open at some point next summer. That’s always what I have to go by when I make predictions about the future of the road.
Question: How much impact do you think the road will have for Wyoming County?
Answer: The construction of the highway is already having an impact on the county and region in the form of jobs and spending. We created 400 jobs because of this highway with the location of the federal prison on the border of Wyoming and McDowell counties.
Additionally, most of the construction of the highway is now being done by local people and many of the materials and supplies needed for the construction are being purchased locally.
It’s hard to measure the amount of money going into the local economy because of the highway, but I am sure it’s very significant.
Long term impact is yet to be determined. We can refer to many studies ascertaining what a new highway does for a community, and most show a positive impact, but it doesn’t automatically happen.
It takes patience, planning, creativity, money, and marketing by the communities the road traverses.
Christy Laxton, executive director of the Wyoming County Economic Development Authority, already is having meetings around the county, organizing local committees to do just this.
That’s how we were able to secure the federal prison near Welch. We had a group working every day, marketing this area for a prison.
History tells us it takes investment in other forms of infrastructure, water, sewer, and broadband to take full advantage of what the road can do.
It takes a trained and educated, drug-free workforce and a good health care system in the area to take full advantage of what the road can do.
The federal banking rules for small, local, community banks need relaxed some, so community banks can lend money for riskier investments.
All of these aforementioned needs are the pillars of the Appalachian Regional Commission when they go into an area to turn an economy around.
Lastly, the road has to go somewhere. It needs completed.
Until it terminates in Pound, Va., it’s basically a one-way road.
You have to have people moving through an area, spending money on investments and seeing for themselves what an area has to offer.
Question: What about the McDowell County portion of the new road? It’s been at grade for how long now? Are there plans to get it open, and when?
Answer: We will receive $110 million dollars from the new turnpike bonding through the governor’s Roads to Prosperity program. It’s my understanding the money will be spent toward completion of the road to Welch from Rt. 16, near White Oak Branch, in Wyoming County.
Although the design for this section was completed many years ago and part of it has been built to at-grade specifications, it has to be updated and that work has begun. It will take more than that appropriation to get the road all the way to Welch.
Question: How much has been invested thus far in the Coalfields? How much do you estimate by the end, when it’s completed? Do you think it will be completed before you retire?
Answer: I think with state and federal funding included, with the addition of funds we will receive from Governor Jim Justice’s Roads to Prosperity program, we are approaching a $300 million investment thus far.
The original estimate for the construction of the West Virginia portion of the highway was $1 billion, but I think that number has long fallen by the wayside.
It will not be completed before I retire, because the Coalfields Expressway Authority funding issue, if not resolved soon, will hasten my full retirement.
Question: Anything you want to add?
Answer: When we first began discussions about this highway, no one predicted it would take this long to construct. No one thought it would span work careers, but now we realize it’s going to.
When the Authority closes its doors for the last time, the organized effort behind the advancement of the highway will cease, and we will go back to the disorganized days before we passed legislation creating the Coalfields Expressway Authority – the days when sometimes I speak for it, and other days other people speak for it, and some days no one speaks for it.
When those days get here, we will once again be totally dependent on political leaders in Charleston and Washington making decisions or not making decisions which affect us locally. We will lose our voice. That didn’t work before and it will not work now.