West Virginia is defined by mountains. Its nickname is The Mountain State. Its official motto is “Mountaineers are Always Free.” And so it is no surprise that the West Virginia Department of Transportation has become adept at working with the mountains, whether it requires moving them or connecting them.
Before the 20th Century, West Virginia had a very distinguished presence in road building. The nation’s first major highway, the National Road, extended into the booming town of Wheeling. That same highway was the impetus to build the Wheeling Suspension Bridge in 1849, which would be first bridge to span more than 1,000 feet, making it the longest in the world at that time. The Wheeling Suspension Bridge is considered the father of American bridges that started the race to connect disparate points around the nation.
Another progressive plan came in the state capital of Charleston. There resident Mordecai Levi was tired of muddy roads making a mess of city thoroughfares and so he built the first brick street in the nation, a method that would sweep the country and provide a charm in many cities that can still be seen today.
West Virginia’s governing agency over highway and bridge building shares with AASHTO the distinguished honor of celebrating its centenary. In 1914, public interest in road building from state and national clubs convinced the State Legislature to create a centralized operation that would be called the State Road Bureau. This four member body provided financial aid to counties through the issue of bonds. These roads were mere improvements to the roadways that had been used throughout history, first as paths trod by bison, next as Native American hunting trails, and then as the roads used by settlers to the colonial West when they crossed those formidable mountains. Three years later this agency would be transformed into the State Road Commission, with a charter stating the body was “to provide a complete system of laws governing the construction and maintenance of public roads and highways, the traffic thereon, to classify such roads and provide for a connecting system of highways.” In 1921, the State Legislature expanded the authority of the State Road Commission and developed methods of funding through licensing and a gas tax. In 1971, the entity was renamed the Department of Highways, overseeing ten construction districts around the state. However, in 1989, the body would grow to become the all-encompassing agency we know it as today, when the Legislature created the West Virginia Department of Transportation, bringing the newly named Division of Highways together with agencies overseeing aviation, river traffic, public transportation, and railroads.
One of those subagencies would be created as the Turnpike Commission in 1947. In the 1940s and 50s, states in the Eastern U.S. were eager to develop something that went by the name of “superhighway.” The nascent term was used for evenly paved roads that allowed quick access between points on the map. Though such highways are taken for granted today, many states were working to be a part of the future and West Virginia was one of them. The West Virginia Turnpike was completed in 1951 and The New York Times reported that its construction required the removal of more earth than did the completion of the Panama Canal. The turnpike's founding agency changed its name to the Parkways Authority in 1990.
Fortunately, with President Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway Act, superhighways would become a joint effort between Federal and State governments, and West Virginia’s Interstates would connect all parts of the state and even incorporate the West Virginia Turnpike into its plan. This enthusiasm for building major highways was taken one step further through creation of the Appalachian Corridor System, an act of legislation fathered by State Senator Jennings Randolph and supported by President Johnson. Federal dollars would aid Appalachian states in the creation of major road systems in isolated regions, especially in wilderness areas that would enable the growth of tourism devoted to skiing, hiking and whitewater rafting. As with the National Road 120 years before, the construction of one of these corridors would require a landmark bridge. The New River Gorge Bridge would become one of the highest and longest arch bridges in the world and has become an icon for the state, taking its place on the official state quarter. Thanks to all of these efforts, trips around the state formerly requiring a whole day of travel, would now be just a few hours drive away. West Virginia’s beautiful mountains could be enjoyed without the hairpin curves of the highways that had been their signature for decades.
HIGHWAYS OF GROWTH
West Virginia has no large metropolitan regions or major cities. The state’s population of 1.8 million people is almost evenly distributed around its rugged landscape. So when development and funding are considered, projects are generally spread evenly around the state. Since the 1980s, Appalachian Corridor Highways have come to fuller completion. Named alphabetically, the corridor highways have undergone a long process of carving out earth and rock in steep places that had formerly resisted highway development.
Corridor G (U.S. Highway 119) runs from Charleston, through the famous Billion Dollar Coalfields in Logan and right into Hatfield & McCoy country at Williamson. History buffs, hikers, and bikers are now using the highway to seek their diversions and feeding growth to a once declining region.
Corridor D (U.S. Highway 50) connects Bridgeport, in the center of the state, to Parkersburg, along the Ohio River. With a new span crossing the Mighty Ohio, one can now travel from central West Virginia to Cincinnati, Ohio on a single highway, thus feeding the economic engines of that region
Corridor H (U.S. Highway 48) extends from Weston in the north central part of the state, to the town of Elkins, and from there to the Virginia border, not far from Washington, D.C. This is the last of the corridors in West Virginia still in progress. Civil War battlefields and the legacies of railroad and timber barons populate the history of this region, and great care had to be given to not disturb these historical sites. So far, 86 miles out of the planned 130 miles have been completed.
With the completion of Corridors L & Q, and the upgrade of Corridor E to become Interstate 68, the Appalachian Corridor System is on track to accomplish for West Virginia all that its creators had planned.
Various other highways have been on the fast track to expansion from two lanes to four. As is so typical in West Virginia, they are in historically distinct regions to which great consideration must be given.
Interstate 64 connects the state’s two largest metropolitan areas, Charleston and Huntington, creating what is called the MetroValley. With over 700,000 people in the region, it is a commercial and media focal point. Between the two cities is the collective community of Teays Valley, named for an ancient river that used to run through the area. Bearing the suburbs of the state’s two largest cities, Teays Valley has become a crossroads in the Southeastern part of the state. With traffic running between the busy state capitol in Charleston and thriving Marshall University in Huntington, the area has experienced huge growth that required the expansion of Interstate 64 to six lanes.
With increased traffic reaching record levels on U.S. Route 35 that stretches from Teays Valley to the historical town of Pt. Pleasant on the Ohio River, it became necessary to relieve the area of the congestion of commercial traffic. Due to a variety of concerns, it was better to build an entirely new four-lane highway than to expand the existing one. This region, in Mason and Putnam counties, is one of the state’s most agricultural, with family farm histories stretching back more than 200 years to the time when George Washington owned this land. Moreover, this region served as home for the prehistoric Adena people who built mounds and villages here. It is typical for farmers to uncover ancient relics while tilling their fields, so it was no surprise to find that excavation of the new highway would uncover sites of antiquarian relevance. Working with Native historians and organizations, WVDOT was able to continue the process of road construction. With a small part of the road’s central portion still to be done, the new highway connects the region to Detroit, Michigan and Columbus, Ohio. The new U.S. 35 has alleviated heavy traffic for farmers , while preserving the distinct heritage and history of the region.
As any student of geography knows, West Virginia has two panhandles. What may be less known is that both are a result of transportation. West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle was created when the state was still part of Virginia, which insisted that its investment in river traffic on the Ohio River at Wheeling required this land to remain with the Old Dominion and not be rewarded to Pennsylvania, as was planned with the creation of the Mason-Dixon Line. This slender piece of real estate is sometimes called Steel Valley, for the production of metals and other heavy industry there. WV Route 2 is carved into the hillsides that run along the river. Traffic increases have logjammed this road, so it has been paramount that Route 2 be expanded to four-lanes. In this narrow valley running along the great river with a steady population throughout, the highway expansion has been slow-moving, but in a topographical location as challenging as this, slow and steady wins the race.
The Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia was deliberately created by President Lincoln, who deemed the counties of Morgan, Berkeley and Jefferson to be a part of the new Union state of West Virginia. These counties had significant railroad lines that were necessary to the Union’s battle against the Confederacy. Today, the Eastern Panhandle is part of the Washington, D.C. metro region and is served by a commuter line from the city courtesy of neighboring Maryland. The growth of the Eastern Panhandle has been exponential, as the suburbs push further west from the nation’s capital. This necessitated the four-lane widening of WV Route 9, a project that met with much consternation, but today is a success story that has facilitated the region’s quick growth.
In the northern part of the state, Interstate 79, which originates in Charleston, connects Clarksburg, Fairmont and Morgantown. With humming West Virginia University and the FBI fingerprinting facility anchoring the region’s economy, this area is called the High Tech Corridor. Widening Interstate 79 to six lanes and constructing the new Mon-Fayette Expressway has enabled the region to cultivate its industry. Mon-Fayette has provided a new four-lane highway between this region and the city of Pittsburgh, helping Pennsylvania and West Virginia to reverse the fortunes of this former coal producing region into one that produces high tech initiatives and pharmaceuticals.
BRIDGING THE GAP
Having become famous for its bridge building was not part of West Virginia’s original plan. But having great rivers like the Ohio, Potomac, Kanawha, New, and Monongahela—just to name a few—requires a special prowess with bridge construction. Joining the esteemed Wheeling Suspension Bridge and the awe-inspiring New River Gorge Bridge are a group of new crossings that earn their place in the family.
With the completion of Corridor D in Parkersburg, yet again, a new highway demanded a special bridge design. Corridor D would have to pass over a national historic landmark, Blennerhassett Island , a former plantation located in the middle of the Ohio River and thought to be the location of Aaron Burr’s alleged plans for a Southwestern revolution. The bridge had to be constructed so that it was high enough to allow navigation on the water, but low enough to not be seen from the historical aspects of the two-mile island. This daunting task was met with a unique network tied-arch structure, the Blennerhassett Island Bridge, which met all criteria and pioneered new construction techniques, winning international acclaim, including the Gustav Lindenthall Award.
In the Charleston metro region, Interstate 64 required a new and unique bridge to cross the Kanawha River that could facilitate the widening of the highway to six lanes. At a cost of $82 million, WVDOT built the longest cast-in-place concrete segmental box girder bridge in the United States. This distinctive structure looks deceptively narrow from below, but carries three busy lanes of highway traffic into the city.
In the Eastern Panhandle, a bold new bridge crosses the Potomac River at Shepherdstown. Honoring one of the great innovators of steamboat engine design and one of the Mountain State’s favorite sons, The James Rumsey Bridge offers a stylish crossing in an historical region.
Can the name of any river invoke as much history as the Shenandoah? Famous in song and stories, the Shenandoah River served as a barrier to the completion of WV Route 9, but the new bridge used a special Y-design in the support structure, adding a compelling aesthetic detail to a region already rich with beauty.
OFF THE ROAD
WVDOT’s innovation extends beyond highway and bridge building and into concepts that can facilitate traffic flow with greater safety and efficiency. In March 2004, DOH instituted a statewide Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) architecture to be in compliance with regional and national standards in preparation for the launch of a comprehensive statewide ITS initiative
In November 2008, the centerpiece of the agency's ITS program was completed and operational. The TMC is located in the Capitol Complex, which provides a communication hub or "nerve center" for monitoring and controlling highly visible transportation resources. The system enables the management of traffic control, emergency response and accident clearance functions, monitoring of transportation network conditions, and communication of traffic information.
In 2012, WVDOT launched one of its most popular and helpful communications initiatives with its 511 Network. Employing an application for smart phones, travelers in the state can use 511 to identify traffic conditions where they will be traveling, and even make alternative route plans if necessary. It was enacted for all Interstate and Appalachian Corridor highways, and improved direct communication to state drivers.
With a network of highways reaching all portions of West Virginia’s spread out population, communication has been as key as the construction of better highways and great bridges. It is the goal of WVDOT to unite all travelers in the state in a smooth and simple process.