Coalfields Expressway: Mostly unfinished and unfunded
Progress on a proposed 115-mile federal highway to improve transportation connectivity between Southwest Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky has been crawling in the commonwealth.
Authorized by Congress in 1995, the Coalfields Expressway (CFX) — U.S. Route 121 — would run from U.S. Route 23 in Pound to Interstates 64 and 77 in West Virginia. It remains largely unbuilt and unfunded, however.
“I think we have increased the awareness of the importance of the road, that it is a road to somewhere — [that] our region is important, and that if the region is ever going to advance, we need something like that,” says Jonathan Belcher, executive director of the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority and the Coalfields Expressway Authority.
A 2021 report by Chmura Economics & Analytics estimated that the CFX would cost $3.1 billion to complete, and its cumulative economic impact over 50 years would be $12.8 billion in 2021 dollars, based largely on construction spending and new service businesses expected to pop up along the route.
Belcher envisions that the highway could attract industry and tourism by increasing access to locations such as Buchanan County’s Southern Gap Industrial Park and Breaks Interstate Park.
Virginia has recently begun constructing about 7 miles of the commonwealth’s roughly 50-mile portion of the CFX because that stretch overlaps another highway, U.S. Route 460, linking Grundy to Kentucky. But that’s all that’s been funded in Virginia.
West Virginia has opened 18 miles of its 66-mile portion of the CFX to traffic. About 5 miles are set to be awarded for construction in April, and 15 more are in preliminary stages.
“I think we’re headed in the right direction, but there’s still a lot of funding left to be raised, a lot of work left to be done,” Belcher says.
In addition to lobbying state and federal lawmakers to fund the highway, the CFX authority also is exploring unconventional options like federal bond programs. The fiscal 2022 federal spending bill passed by Congress in March included $1.99 million for planning, budgeting and design work on expanding the CFX from Grundy to West Virginia.
“Our hope,” Belcher says, “is that maybe finally people will … realize that it’s time that some of those larger dollars be invested in Southwest Virginia as well, if the state … really wants Southwest Virginia to come up to par economically with the rest of the commonwealth.”