ON U.S. ROUTE 52 - In southern West Virginia they call this The Highway That Time Forgot, a 100-mile, two-lane stretch of stomach-churning switchbacks and careening coal trucks, clogged by stop-and-start school buses, slow-driving seniors and the random pedestrian.
Infamous are its ear-popping ascents and declines; its oscillating speed limits and paucity of passing zones; its (by one count) 333 substandard curves. Rock ledges tower over the road, and sometimes boulders fall on it.
That Route 52 is the best east-west connection through the coalfields — two entire counties have not an inch of four-lane — testifies to how badly the area needs the 65-mph, limited-access divided highways that the rest of America takes for granted.
President Trump has famously promised to “bring back coal’’ and put miners back to work. But he’s also who’s promised $1 trillion for infrastructure. At the Republican National Convention, on election night, in his inaugural address and last week in his first speech to Congress, the New York developer has vowed to build highways.
To Trump supporters here, his infrastructure promises are as important as his coal promises. Highways, in fact, are seen as deliverance from coal’s economic tyranny.
“If we could get highways in here, we wouldn’t have to depend on coal,’’ says Ray Bailey, the assessor in McDowell County, where Trump got 74% of the vote. He’s tacitly admitting that while Trump may be unable to revive an industry that has been declining for decades, he can at least build some roads.
“Now is the time,’’ agrees Gordon Lambert, a county commissioner, a Democrat and a Trump voter. “If we don’t get our highways this time, we won’t get them in our lifetime.’’
His constituents are desperate. Since 1960, when the coal industry began to collapse, McDowell County’s population has declined from 71,000 (third largest in the state) to 21,000 (29th). Only one in three adults works for a living, and the largest employers are the schools and two prisons. Last year even Walmart pulled out.
The lack of highways has exacerbated the isolation that for two centuries has been Appalachia’s curse. “Interstates are the roads, canals and railroads of our early history, all rolled into one. If you don’t have them, you can’t develop,’’ says Bugs Stover, the Wyoming County circuit court clerk. He once walked 100 miles to the state capital to present the governor with a petition to match federal highway funds.
Like everyone here, he pines for two massive projects: the King Coal Highway and the Coalfields Expressway, which would crisscross southern West Virginia, bypassing Route 52 and its ilk. They’ve been on the planning board for decades, but so far only six drivable miles have been constructed.
There are two notable monuments to this futility. One is The Highway in the Middle of Nowhere, a 1.5 mile roadbed constructed in 17 years ago but still unpaved and unconnected.
And, at the eastern end of The Highway that Time Forgot, near the Virginia line, there is The Bridge to Nowhere. The twin-span, four-lane, 20-story structure was completed a decade ago. But it dead-ends into the side of the aptly named Stony Ridge. “They built my bridge, but then the money ran out,’’ wails Christine West, 84, a retired state highways department employee for whom it is named.
She wants Trump to take a look. “If the president came here he’d see this and finish the road,’’ she says. She’s standing in the mud of a construction road leading to the bridge. “He needs us,’’ she says of Trump. “He got elected because of us.’’
The fall of coal
When southern West Virginia had coal, it didn’t need highways. Coal was mined by people who lived near mines, and taken away by rail and river. When the interstate highway system was built, it was easy to bypass a state so mountainous that the average cost per mile of construction was as much as eight times higher than in a place like Kansas.
For a time it seemed the King Coal Highway and Coalfields Expressway would open up the region and diversify its economy. Their greatest champion was U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd, a ranking member of the Appropriations Committee and famous for bringing federal pork back to his state.
But there were setbacks and delays: the national recession in 2007; Byrd’s death in 2010; the rise of the fiscally conservative Tea Party movement; and the elimination of congressional budget earmarks, which Byrd and his allies had used to get the projects started.
And what federal highway money did come into West Virginia often was directed by state officials to areas with more people and better prospects for economic growth.
Politicians kept promising roads that never materialized. In 2014 the accumulated disappointment helped defeat Byrd’s protégé, U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, a 36-year incumbent; his Republican challenger, state legislator Evan Jenkins, accused him of not doing enough to get highways built.
The Bluefield Daily Telegraph agreed, saying in its endorsement that Rahall’s “seniority has not translated into much progress for our region, where (highway) construction remains woefully stalled.’’
The dearth of highways makes it hard for almost everyone to get almost anywhere. It can take two hours to reach a shopping center or a hospital, or just to cross McDowell County. Charleston might as well be Paris.
If you’re able to drive along at the speed limit you don’t stop for gas, because you never know what you’ll get caught behind if you do. And you never know what’s around the next curve. “I’ve killed more deer with my car than some hunters have with a gun,’’ says Dreama Dotson, a commuter who drives a 2002 Chevy Cavalier with 243,000 miles.
Amanda Fragile works for the McDowell County schools in Welch, the county seat. Her daily round trip commute takes more than three hours and may cost $7,000 a year in gas, maintenance and depreciation. She’s been commuting to work or school on Route 52 since she was 17, and says "I've seen a lot of wrecks.”
She accepts the risk, but she’s a native. “I have relatives from Florida who are afraid to drive on these roads,’’ says Nelson Spencer, the schools superintendent. Bill Archer, a Mercer County commissioner and former newspaperman, agrees: “When modern people get on these roads, it’s treacherous for them.’’
There are many consequences to these bad roads. One is having your third-grader taught by four different teachers in the same school year.
The McDowell public schools have a high turnover rate; over a recent three-year period, it lost 163 of 285 teachers. Many starting teachers can’t find or afford good housing in the county, are forced to commute from areas such as Beckley or Bluefield, and take jobs closer to home as soon as they can.
The case for help
Those who demand more highways would never use the word "reparations.'' But that, given the region's reduced political clout and elusive development potential, is what their case for funds boils down to.
The argument rests on three premises: that when the coal industry was booming, southern West Virginia was a big net exporter of tax revenues; that federal policies, especially environmental ones, undercut coal mining; and that the region was unfairly bypassed by federal interstate highway construction.
Thus, the proposed solution: Washington helps the region to diversify economically by funding highways. Even better, unemployed miners could help build them.
“There’s no better place in America for the government to say, ‘Here’s what we did to you, and here’s what we can do for you,’’’ says Richard Browning, director of the Coalfields Expressway Authority, a creature of the state (albeit recently defunded after 20 years) that lobbies for the highway.
What government will say is unclear. The new governor, Jim Justice (like Trump a billionaire businessman), wants to build roads and has proposed issuing bonds to do it. But he faces a huge budget deficit and opposition to his proposed increases in the state gas tax, license renewal fees and turnpike tolls.
And, despite Trump’s rhetoric and natural inclination to cut ribbons, infrastructure thus far has not been high on his legislative agenda. He also faces opposition from fiscal conservatives in his own party. Trump could make common cause with Democrats, but they oppose his apparent inclination to encourage infrastructure construction primarily through private sector tax credits.
All of which tends to reinforce the skepticism here that anything will ever change.
Archer, the Mercer commissioner, once wrote a song extolling the King Coal Highway and lamenting the road it would replace: “It ain’t the road to ruin/It’s just Route 52.’’
“I’m 67 years old,’’ he says. “Even when I was 47, I never thought this highway was going to happen in my lifetime.’’
But hopes have been raised, and, as former congressman Nick Rahall could tell the president, people here have long memories. If Trump has promised to remember “the forgotten men and women,’’ it’s also true that here on The Highway that Time Forgot, those men and women will remember his promises.
That includes Christine West, a veteran of more fund-seeking expeditions to Washington than she can remember. Her final words to a visiting reporter: "Tell the president to get down here!''
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