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DOH seeks ways to finish US 35 upgrade

Oct. 18, 2013 @ 06:20 PM

WINFIELD -- State highways officials are looking for ways to complete an upgrade of U.S. 35 in Mason and Putnam counties.

The Division of Highways had planned to fund the $187 million project, which would expand a 14.6-mile section of the highway to four lanes, with revenue from tolls. County officials initially approved the project but rescinded their decision following a backlash against the tolls.

The DOH is seeking alternative funding for the project and is continuing to buy right-of-way land in the area, DOH spokesman Brent Walker told the Charleston Gazette.

"Who likes tolls? No one is going to say, 'hooray, tolls,' but what they said was that they supported the completion of U.S. 35, even if it meant tolling," Walker said. "In order for us to go the tolling bond route, the Legislature said we would need to get support from both county commissions.

"I'm not sure people believed that we truly didn't have funding for it; they though it was out there and we just weren't looking hard enough or there was another way, so we were forced to pull it."

One possible alternative is a public-private partnership.

A bill approved by the Legislature during this year's regular session allows private entities or contractors to front all of the money necessary to finish a project. The DOH would pay them over a given period of time.

"The Legislature has allowed us to take a look at this public-private partnership, and we're trying to find what projects could benefit by the 'P3' concept," Walker said. "I don't know that we've arrived at that decision for Route 35 yet, but we certainly know that it would be on anyone's list."

The DOH also would have to find a private partner with the bond capacity to pay for such a large project.

"We think it's a feasible alternative; we're just trying to see where it works," he said.

Mason County Commission President Joe Haynes said county officials have written a letter to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin voicing their support of P3 funding.

"The completion of (US) 35 is going to mean a lot to Mason County, Putnam County, Kanawha County -- to West Virginia as a whole," Haynes said. "I think there's a window of opportunity here, and we ought to be on board in saying that we support it."

Walker said that some improvements to the existing highway have been made, including guard rails and paving through the shoulders to widen it.

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