BREAKS, Va. — Tucked away in a valley high above Grassy Creek in Dickenson County, the region’s first cantilever bridges are taking shape, foot by balanced foot.
When they are completed, the twin bridges, both 265 feet above the ground and 1,728 feet long, will be the highest in the state, and will help bring four lanes of roadway all the way from Virginia Beach into Kentucky.
The bridges, concrete giants stretching into the sky, will represent half of the U.S. 460 Connector, also called Corridor Q. Kentucky is continuing to work on its side of the road, too, so that the two projects are in sight of one another.
The project — one of two construction projects that state officials say are needed to break the isolation of the coalfields region of Southwest Virginia and opponents say are just mining in disguise that will bypass local communities — is moving along in Buchanan, Dickenson and Wise counties.
The other, larger project, the Coalfields Expressway, or U.S. Highway 121, will eventually connect U.S. Highway 23 in Wise County with Interstates 77 and 64 in West Virginia, creating a four-lane road from Interstate 26 in Tennessee through Virginia and into the mountains beyond.
CFX, a history
In 1964, the Appalachian Regional Commission told Congress that overcoming isolation in the region was crucial to stimulating economic growth in Appalachia. A year later, Congress authorized the construction of the Appalachian Development Highway System, and in 1995, the Coalfields Expressway, or CFX, was designated a congressional high-priority corridor.
“We have got to break the isolation of this region, or we’ll certainly decline,” said Amanda Cox, project director for the Coalfields Expressway. “Economic development will follow … [in Northern Virginia,] they need money to keep up with economic development, and we need money to get economic development to come.”
Preliminary engineering began in 2002, and in 2006, the Virginia Department of Transportation partnered with coal companies to build the roads using coal synergy, which means that coal equipment is used and the coal found is sold to help recoup the costs of the project.
In 2011, the first two-mile section of the road was completed to rough grade in the Hawks Nest section. That’s where the road stands today. The project estimated at $5.1 billion using traditional methods will cost about $2.8 billion using coal synergy, VDOT estimates.
There are about a dozen sections of the CFX/460 project, and most of them are in preliminary engineering contract phases.
The Virginia Department of Transportation, which is overseeing the project, is currently working to revise part of an environmental assessment for environmental study of Section II of the project, which involves several construction segments, including part of the Pound Connector, which would link the expressway to U.S. 23 in Pound, Va.
A few years ago, an alternate route was proposed, an action that requires the Federal Highway Administration to look at the environmental assessment again, Cox said.
“The previous alignment was not practicable,” Cox said. “Coal synergy gives us a practicable alternative. ... When we talked to our partners about coal synergy, they wanted to move the alignment slightly.”
She said a design was done for a section of the old alignment, and the estimate for construction cost more than doubled. She said the farthest the new road veers from the old alignment is three miles and in many places the road is the same.
She said VDOT is in the process of updating sections of the final environmental impact statement.
“We are currently working with the Federal Highway Administration to revise the environmental assessment done on section two,” Cox said, adding that a public hearing will be held in the spring. “We are looking at that revised environmental assessment very closely and working with the Federal Highway Administration to follow the process. And because it’s such a highly scrutinized project right now, we’re taking our time and looking at it very closely. ... VDOT will do our due diligence.”
The environmental assessment findings are needed so people know what could happen as a result of the project, said Marley Green, of Appalachia, Va., who is a member of the Sierra Club.
“We’re concerned they did so [rerouted the road] to maximize coal extraction and not public benefit,” he said. “We think the study that’s been done doesn’t analyze that sufficiently. When VDOT worked with the coal companies, it made it less beneficial and greatly increased the potential environmental impacts.”
The new alignment has also drawn criticism from some local residents, who say that it’s farther from the small towns in the region.
“The route change takes the route away from the towns,” said Jane Branham, of Big Stone Gap, who serves as vice president of Appalachia, Va.-based Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards. “It thwarts those efforts like The Crooked Road venues the towns have.”
Cox said the road will have connectors to the towns.
“I know there’s been a lot of people who would say we are bypassing these towns,” she said. “The road is not bypassing; there are lots of connections.”
The Pound connector segment falls in sections 1 and 2 of the environmental impact study, Cox said.
“We could construct part of the Pound connector, where it ties to [U.S. Route] 23,” Cox said. “It has been [National Environmental Policy Act] approved and has funding.”
Funding has been secured for almost 12 miles of the project, the Pound connector and Doe Branch segments. The Hawks Nest section, about two miles long, has been completed to rough grade.
The method used to build the Hawks Nest section, and Phase I of the 460 connector — which is just a few hundred yards of pavement before the bridges — is called coal synergy.
VDOT partnered with local coal companies, including Bristol-based Alpha Natural Resources, to build the road at nearly half the cost to the state, Cox said. The coal companies use their equipment to plow through the terrain, and the cost of coal recovered is sometimes split between VDOT and the company or goes to the company, depending on how each section’s contract was negotiated, she said.
“The largest cost to building these roads is excavation,” she said. “Their [coal company] methods and construction equipment is what truly reduces the cost. If there are some coal reserves they will be used to offset the construction cost.”
Marketable coal reserves are harvested as the path of the road is built, said Steve Higginbottom, a spokesman for Alpha Natural Resources. He said the surface-mining equipment the coal companies have is designed for moving large amounts of dirt and rock, and is not equipment road crews typically have access to.
He said CFX’s new route also more closely follows the contours of the mountains, eliminating the need for extra bridges and viaducts.
“It’s not economical for the companies to mine these [coal] seams as standalone,” he said, adding that the partnership makes it a viable mining project for the companies and can benefit the state. “The rough-grade preparation for the road can be done and save the state some money.”
But some local environmentalists are concerned about this method of road-building.
“I hate to refer to it as a road because it’s really just a strip mine,” Branham said. “It’s not a road we need. ... It’s basically a strip job that they don’t have to reclaim.”
She said a similar road project in West Virginia resulted in flooding because of the lack of timber where the road now stands.
“I’m afraid the same thing is going to happen,” Branham said. “I think states are underfunded and taxpayers are picking up the ticket for the reclamation.”
She said she feels like residents who oppose the project feel hopeless.
“We had a meeting in Clintwood Monday,” Branham said. “And people that showed up said, ‘This is horrible, but I don’t think we can do anything about it.’”
Green said the partnership feels like “a handout of taxpayer money to coal corporations.”
“The state continues to fund this really expensive road and we’ll end up with strip-mined mountains that are poorly reclaimed,” Green said. “There’s a lot of reasons to be concerned.”
Cox rejects the notion that the road is a mining project.
“Any coal that goes above a certain threshold of incidental coal, they have to get a mining permit,” she said. “They can’t go down 50 feet below the road unless they can prove it’s an economic necessity. … The deartment does not have the authority to regulate mining and it’s not in the department’s interest to expand the mining community.”
She said lots of road projects in Southwest Virginia encounter coal seams, and if coal is extracted and sold, it is done so through a government-backed method.
“There are a couple of projects in Grundy, widening the road and it’s the same thing,” she said. “It’s standard business for the department to have our contractors excavate or uncover coal seams.”
She said it’s a win-win for the region and taxpayers, as permitted regions are already on board and are regulated by the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy.
“Where this coincides with current mining operations, they’re already permitted and the [environmental] impacts are already permitted and we already have a mitigation plan,” Cox said. “But that doesn’t happen a lot. In Section II, 13 percent of the roadway falls within a permitted mining operation; 87 percent is not and that is where incidental coal is regulated.”
The 460 Connector
The most visible progress has been on the first phase of the Route 460 Connector, or Corridor Q, where the bridges are being built.
“We are truly focused on creating Corridor Q,” Cox said. “The [VDOT] six-year plan has funding for all of Corridor Q.”
The twin bridges are being built on site, with all concrete poured locally, said Shane Rixom, resident engineer for engineering firm RS&H, which is representing VDOT on the project.
Segments 6.5-feet wide are poured at a time, branching out from concrete piers. The segments are poured first on one side and then the other to keep the balance.
“We’re doing segmental construction so you can go with a longer span,” he said.
Under the concrete surface is a hollow section, Rixom said, which will be used for maintenance access.
The next portion of the road is to start construction on Phase II, which is currently visible as a solid rock wall at the end of the paved part of Phase I on the Virginia side of the Route 460 Connector bridge. Phase I’s budget is $113 million, and the design contract with Bizzack Construction of Kentucky is $108 million for Phase II.
The bridge is due to be finished in June 2015, Rixom said.
The design public hearing for Phase II will be held this spring, with construction set to begin in Feburary 2015, while the whole Route 460 Connector project is set to be completed in 2021.