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Coalfields Expressway/U.S. 121 (Corridor 29)


The Coalfields Expressway high priority corridor begins in Pound, Virginia, and heads northeast to Beckley, West Virginia, via Virginia State Route 83 and West Virginia Routes 83, 16, 10, 97, and 54. This four-lane road would run generally along the Virginia 83 corridor, from U.S. 23 near Pound in Wise County, through Dickenson County, into Buchanan County, crossing U.S. 460 near Grundy, extending to Slate near the West Virginia border. The expressway is also planned to extend into West Virginia, linking into Interstate 64 and Interstate 77 near Beckley, W.Va. According to WVDOT, there will be a connection from the Coalfields Expressway to Interstate 73/74 and Interstate 66/Trans America Corridor.

This press release from August 17, 2000 ("Commonwealth Transportation Board Approves Coalfields Expressway Location") indicates the final adopted path of the Coalfields Expressway in Virginia:

The Coalfields Expressway, which will be designated as U.S. Route 121, will begin at Route 23 north of the Route 23 Business connection in Town of Pound. The alternative travels along the ridge north of Route 83 and turns south just to the west of the Town of Clintwood. For a short distance the alternative travels along the Route 83 corridor then turns south and parallels the southern boundary of the Town of Clintwood. It then turns north and passes in the vicinity of the Dickenson County Technology Park. The alternative then turns east and crosses the Cranes Nest River and continues along the ridge in a northeasterly direction. It crosses the Russell Fork just north of the Town of Haysi and continues to the northeast in the vicinity of Bull Gap. Continuing on the same course it travels near Harman and Maxie and crosses the Levisa Fork and Route 460 north of Grundy in the vicinity of Looney Creek. The route continues to the east along the ridgeline in Buchanan County to its terminus/connection to the West Virginia Coalfields Expressway at the Virginia/West Virginia state line near Paynesville, West Virginia.

Groundbreaking for the West Virginia section of the Coalfields Expressway occurred on August 8, 2000. Construction plans include a planned $107 million interchange of the Coalfields Expressway and the Interstate 73-74 near Welch at Indian Ridge. Construction of the Coalfields Expressway in Virginia will begin sometime in mid-2001, after required environmental impact reports are completed and contract bids are publicized. When completed, the 70-mile Coalfields Expressway will run from Grundy, Virginia, to Beckley, West Virginia at a cost of nearly $1.1 billion (August 2000 estimate).

For more information, go to VDOT's Coalfields Expressway page.

U.S. 121: The Coalfields Expressway

The West Virginia and Virginia DOT's have agreed to petition the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) to designate the Coalfields Expressway as U.S. 121. This includes the entire route from Interstate 77 at Beckley to U.S. 460 at Grundy, Virginia. As of July 1998, AASHTO has not approved this petition to designate U.S. 121. Of course, there is one special note about the proposed numbering of U.S. 121: If the Coalfields Expressway is built as proposed, it won't intersect its "parent route," U.S. 21. U.S. 21 currently ends in Wytheville, Virginia, which is far south of Beckley.

Coalfields Expressway Authority Executive Director Richard Browning notes he is "excited" at Highways' designation of the Coalfields Expressway as U.S. 121. "This gives our highway an official identity of its own," he says. "When I talk to people who come into the Authority's offices in Pineville, I tell them that every day brings us a little closer to actual construction. Route designation is definitely a milestone and a very significant event in the development of this highway for Raleigh, Wyoming and McDowell counties. Completion of new U.S. 121 will put these three counties on a level playing field for economic development with the rest of West Virginia and our sister state of Virginia, and that's what we're here for."

Robert V. Droz notes from a route numbering perspective that U.S. 121 "does connect with former U.S. 21 at Beckley, West Virginia. {However,] two better numbers are available: U.S. 419 has never been assigned anywhere and would connect to U.S. 19 [and] U.S. 560 was only planned in 1925, but never posted. This new one [the Coalfields Expressway] would connect to U.S. 460 in Grundy, Virginia."

The Coalfields Expressway will complement Interstate 73 to be built along the Big Sandy River in West Virginia near the Kentucky line. The expressway will also connect to the southwest-to-northeast U.S. 119 (ARC Corridor G) improvement which is under construction or in the planning stages, between Pikeville, Kentucky, and U.S. 52 (Interstate 73) at Williamson, W. Va.

The Ridgeline and Valley Options for the Expressway

Scott Kozel wrote in misc.transport.road a summary of a Richmond Times-Dispatch article from November 9, 1997, about the proposed Coalfields Expressway in Southwest Virginia.

The article said that in 1995, Congress authorized 80% federal funding for the Expressway, although it is not funded yet. The expressway was originally conceived as an economic godsend to a region where the coal industry is "rattling in its death throes," and the unemployment rate is a double-digit fact of life.

In Virginia, the proposed Coalfields Expressway would run about 55 miles. The estimated costs in Virginia range from $357 million to $880 million, depending on which alternative is built. Scott writes:

The cheaper alternative would generally run across the tops of the ridges, many of which have been strip-mined. The more expensive alternative would run through the valleys near existing VA 83 and other populated areas. The ridgeline alternative would run through relatively unpopulated areas, but would require connector roads to reach the populated valley areas.

Local residents are concerned about the impact of a four-lane highway running through the narrow valleys, concerned that a lot of the limited flat land would have to be utilized. They are concerned about access problems to a ridgeline expressway, also.

Most residents are very interested in the new highway, because it would help stimulate economic growth in this area which has high unemployment. A number of people are excited about the tourism that would be generated by a spectacular ridge-line expressway; they have seen how popular that the Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway have been in other parts of Virginia, and they want something like that for Southwest Virginia.

The ridgeline road would likely include extensive restoration of strip-mined terrain. It could be a spectacular road. The presently-isolated but spectacular Breaks Interstate Park would have greatly improved access. The cost of the ridge top route would be cheaper. VDOT estimates that it would cost up to $16 million per mile to build the 55-mile road in the lowlands; a ridgetop expressway would cost as little as $6.5 million per mile. The costs of acquiring right-of-way is what makes the valley route so expensive, numerous houses and businesses would have to be acquired.

The design consultant Hayes, Seay, Mattern and Mattern of Roanoke, Virginia, has recently been hired to conduct location studies for the road. This would include deciding whether a ridgetop or valley alignment would be more feasible.

Linking the Coalfields Expressway to U.S. 460

According to Scott Kozel, it seems likely that the Coalfields Expressway would have a connector built to provide the long-awaited U.S. 460 relocation from near Grundy to Breaks Interstate Park on the Virginia-Kentucky border and beyond into Kentucky. There have been plans for 20 years or more to build a four-lane relocation of U.S. 460; it would run from the Vansant - Grundy area in Virginia to the Elkhorn City area in Kentucky.

The existing U.S. 460 is mostly two lanes through mountainous terrain, with considerable traffic. The average daily traffic (ADT) is 8,800 according to the 1995 VDOT traffic volumes book, and that includes a heavy volume of trucks, many of them coal trucks.

Linking the Coalfields Expressway to Interstates 64/77 at Beckley

According to a post by S.P. Cook on July 20, 2000 on misc.transport.road, the "preferred alternate is for a junction near that involves a rework of the I-64/77 split just south of Beckley. Esentually as you approach on 64 going west, you will turn left for 77 south, right for 77 north/64 west multiplex (as today) or go straight for US 121. In practice, there will be a major interchange at the current end of the WV 16 four-lane near Sophia, and most local traffic will exit there to go to Beckley."

Linking the Coalfields Expressway to Interstate 26

According the article, "Congressmen announce funding for Coalfields Expressway and Daniel Boone Heritage Trail," by Amy Gatley dated May 27, 1998 in the Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia Times News, the Coalfields Expressway may be connected to the ongoing Interstate 26 project. At that time, U.S. Rep. Boucher announced that his office is in the process of seeking grants from a $700 million federal fund designated for use in high-priority national corridors. Boucher said he is working to upgrade U.S. 23 in Virginia as an extension of Interstate 181. This extension would logically connect to the future Coalfields Expressway. Since Interstate 181 will connect to Interstate 26 at the Interstate 81 junction in Tennessee, this will provide a direct connection between the Coalfields Expressway and the future Interstate 26 in Tennessee.

The Economic Potential of the Coalfields Expressway

A leader in the Buchanan County Chamber of Commerce was quoted in the Richmond newspaper article as saying, "If we're ever going to make the transition from being dependent on coal, we have to open up the area to the outside world with new roads and bring in some manufacturing." It is clear that folks along this High Priority Corridor hope that the road will bring good fortune along with it, just like those living along the Future Interstate 73/74 and Interstate 69 Corridors. Rightfully or wrongfully, highway construction is certainly seen as being beneficial to economic development.

Several other groups also are lobbying the Virginia DOT to build the road. The locally-preferred alternative is the ridgeline alternative. They say the advantages of a ridgeline road are obvious. First and foremost, it could be built on the mountaintops already leveled by strip mining, leaving smooth, graded land on the highway's edge for new industries. The local political and business leaders are convinced that the Coalfields Expressway will be a magnet for new industry.

Page Updated June 9, 2002.