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U.S. 35 funding remains uncertain

By Staff reports

WINFIELD -- The Putnam County Commission announced Tuesday that work on completing U.S. 35 could begin as early as April thanks to the "public-private partnerships" recently allowed by the Legislature, despite contradicting statements from the state Department of Transportation.

According to Commissioner Andy Skidmore, a member of the county's transportation committee, a representative from the DOT, Perry Keller, told the committee during its regular meeting that U.S. 35 "could start construction by the summer."

An internal DOT document given to the commission lists the U.S. 35 project as a "P3 candidate," and has an estimated start date of April 2014 and completion date of April 2016.

P3 funding would allow private entities or contractors to front all of the money necessary to finish a project, and the DOH would pay them over a given period of time.

Brent Walker, communications director for the WV DOT, said the agency has not identified clear candidates for P3 funding yet. The Legislature passed Senate Bill 190 earlier this year, and the legislation went into effect July 1. SB 190 is the bill that will allow for P3 funding.

Walker said the document provided to the commission is for internal use by the DOT, and includes all incomplete projects that haven't been "killed" by the agency. The dates included in the document do not indicate a firm construction start date, he said.

"We neither have a plan in place or a funding source in place, and, until we have a plan and a funding source, it's premature to say," Walker said. "The date people are referring to on the report, I would say, is a 'planning date.' These are internal documents that, when we put things up, we put a date up there for planning purposes, but those aren't to suggest we'd be going to construction then."

A 14.6-mile stretch of U.S. 35 from the Buffalo Bridge into Mason County has remained unfunded for years, and the interchange connecting old U.S. 35 to the new road has proven dangerous for motorists.

The document provided by the Putnam County Commission still lists the toll road plan for U.S. 35, which Walker said won't be scrapped until alternate funding, such as P3, is found for the road.

"There are still some hoops to jump through," Walker said. "Legal - we'd be working with consultants and interviewing potential candidates that would work with us on that. Those dates are ones by which we'd certainly reassess things by; we'd hope to have a better date soon, but it's just premature to announce, that's for sure."

In 2010, officials from Putnam and Mason counties agreed to a plan that would have installed two tollbooths on either end of the U.S. 35 segment to help fund it. Mason County commissioners withdrew their support after a public outcry.

The projected tolls would have cost $2 per stop for non-commercial drivers and $8 for commercial truck drivers, and yearly EZ Passes would cost roughly $200 for access to both booths. Plans had called for one tollbooth in Mason County, about five miles outside of Point Pleasant, between 3-Mile Creek Road and 5-Mile Creek Road, and the other in Putnam County between Tucker Branch North and Tucker Branch South.

Skidmore said after talking to Walker, he feels confident the U.S. 35 project could be eligible for P3 funding, but that the projected dates given to the transportation committee could be subject to change.

"It's one of those things that everybody's agreed to it, but it hasn't been officially documented," Skidmore said. "It sounds like they've found a way to fund it and now they've just got to go through the proper bid procedures. It seems like everything's pretty firm except the date."

The project has a $214 million projected budget. According to Walker, the DOT has reevaluated the cost of the project, which was originally projected at $187 million, and has maintained its right-of-way land purchases in the area.

"We don't take this type of funding lightly, and we want to make sure it's feasible and that we've got the right type of projects for that funding," Walker said. "Any of our higher-dollar road projects would certainly be considered for this type of program, but we haven't come out and said yet, because there's just so much background and due diligence that needs to happen before any of these would be announced." Reach Lydia Nuzum at lydia.nuzum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5189.


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