Research by RTI Director Makes Interstate 73/74 Corridor a Reality

4/14/2012 / Herald-Dispatch

HUNTINGTON — Building roads takes a lot of things, not the least of which are time
and money.

The Interstate 73/74 corridor — a planned interstate that will someday stretch from
northern Michigan to Myrtle Beach, S.C. — is a long way coming. But in Mingo County,
W.Va., some of that work has already become a reality.

It’s because of a public-private partnership that an 11-mile stretch of the corridor
is actually done. And according to research done right here in Huntington at the
Rahall Transportation Institute, the partnership has greatly reduced the amount
of time and money going into the project there.

It also will turn out to have a greater economic impact on the region because government
and a private company are working together, according to research done by Junwook
Chi, program director of transportation economics at the RTI.

I-73/74 was named by Congress as a priority corridor in 1995, and its West Virginia
portion will be a multi-lane replacement for U.S. 52, known as the Tolsia Highway
in Wayne County or King Coal Highway farther south.

Chi has researched the 150-mile stretch of the planned I-73/74 corridor from Kenova
to Bluefield, W.Va., and can tell you the regional impact on employment, gross regional
product, personal income and industry output.

Specifically, he can tell you how a public-private partnership — a somewhat rare
practice in the United States right now — amplifies the benefits.

“We know there’s a lack of funding to update existing highways and build new highways,”
Chi said. “Public-private partnerships could be the answer. You have mutual benefits.”

In Mingo County, Alpha Natural Resources has teamed up with government to transform
an old surface mine into new roadway. It involves 11.37 miles of roadbed, saving
the state approximately $170 million in construction costs. Two lanes of that are
open in one part of that stretch, but it was constructed for, and is prepared to
expand quickly to, four lanes of interstate traffic.

The project there started in 2004 and is expected to take 22 years, Chi said.

CONSOL Energy is awaiting a permit to do a similar project on a separate five-mile
stretch, which would save the state $110 million in construction costs, Chi’s report
says.

The mining companies are required to have a land reclamation plan for their mining
sites, and this not only helps them fulfill that plan but also creates a safer,
more efficient roadway to transport goods, Chi said. An interstate system is expected
to be safer than the Tolsia and

King Coal highways currently used, he said.

“There is a strong need for a safer, more efficient road,” Chi said.

He says using a public-private partnership — called “P3s” for short — would create
844 jobs in 2012, while not using a P3 would create 571. He said the construction
industry benefits in the short-term while the service industry benefits in the long-terms
with the expected addition of service stations, hotels and restaurants along the
interstate. Other possibilities are distribution centers, agri-tourism, recreation
and auto manufacturing plants.

According to research, he said there would be a $15.27 million increase in the service
industry payroll.

According to his research, by 2050 the industry output is estimated to be $25 million
without a public-private partnership and $46 million with one.

Chi also determined that there would be a 17.4 to 20.3 percent increase in the miles
traveled per vehicle.

Having such research is a tremendous asset to West Virginia, said Robert Plymale,
director of the RTI.

“The fact that you can show the impact of a public-private partnership (is a great
tool),” he said. Though no funding has been segregated to address this, a good portion
of the highway in West Virginia can use public-private partnerships and save money
and make it more feasible, he said.

It’s a project that needs to be looked at with regional perspective, “and if we
all get together in those counties, you have to start looking at other ways to finance
roads,” Plymale said. “In some places, that may mean you have to do tolling or tax-increment
financing, and I think the state right now is poised to look at those options. The
fact that we’ve reviewed it from Kenova to Bluefield and already have a study puts
us further ahead.”

Public-private partnerships are far more common in Canada and Europe than they are
here, said Chi, who is originally from South Korea and got his PhD at North Dakota
State University. There are a handful of examples throughout the country of where
such partnerships have helped bring projects to fruition in places like Chicago;
Orange County, Calif.; North Carolina and Las Vegas.

“This is critical to the economic development of southern West Virginia,” Plymale
said. “Look from a standpoint of where economic development has occurred. Look at
Putnam County, for example. It had farms … but when you built 64 through that,
it’s transformed Putnam County into a growth county, and it’s been very proactive
from that standpoint.

“Now that we have a report, we can now start to look at funding options that look
at the whole corridor or section of corridor.”

Chi has been a godsend for the RTI, Plymale said.

“He’s phenomenal. We were very fortunate to get him,” he said.