When Paul Elswick founded Paul’s Fan Company in 1958 as a small shop repairing underground mining equipment, he had no idea that one day he would expand to manufacture and ship thousands of ventilation systems across the USA, Canada, and Mexico. But more than 60 years later, Elswick’s son Todd, who now runs the family business, is unsure if he can afford to keep his operations in Buchanan County, the only Virginia county to border both West Virginia and Kentucky.
Headquartered in Grundy, a small Appalachian town of about 1,000 residents surrounded by majestic mountains on the banks of the Levisa River, Paul’s Fan Company is two hours in any direction from any kind of major thoroughfare or interstate, making it an extremely challenging location for an international distributor of ventilation fans.
“When we try to hire LTL (less than truckload freight shipping) trucks or hired trucks, they won’t come here because we are so far off the beaten path,” Todd Elswick said in a recent phone interview. “That’s one of our main problems of where we are, and a reason why other industries won’t locate here. If we were located in other places in the world, we would have a much better clientele just because of geographical location.”
The main reason why Elswick decided to hang in there is the promise of the Coalfields Expressway, a proposed limited-access highway designed to provide a modern, safe and efficient transportation artery through the coalfields region of far Southwest Virginia and southern West Virginia. Once completed, the approximately 57-mile section in Virginia – dubbed CFX by transportation officials and formally designated U.S. Route 121 – will travel from U.S. Route 23 near Pound through Dickenson and Buchanan counties to its connection with the West Virginia segments of the expressway leading to Interstate 64.
For businesses like Paul’s Fan Company, the CFX would be a lifeline to a wide world of commerce beyond remote Appalachia. “If I can get my product closer to where I can get it on a good hub, and decrease these costs, any kind of help will benefit my company directly,” Elswick said. “And being able to do that and holding my cost will make me more marketable towards my competitors.”
But despite being considered the largest road project in Virginia’s history with a price tag up to $4 billion, more than 30 years since its inception progress has been slow for much of this time and the construction of the CFX in the commonwealth has not moved beyond its infancy stage.
However, efforts have begun picking up steam in more recent years, after the General Assembly in 2017 created the Virginia Coalfields Expressway Authority, which is tasked with improving transportation into, from, within and through Southwest Virginia, while assisting in regional economic development and generally enhancing highway safety in the affected localities of Buchanan, Dickenson and Wise counties.
The authority has a total membership of 12 members, including nine non-legislative citizen members and three ex officio members. Six of the non-legislative citizen members are appointed by the Speaker of the House of Delegates – two each from Buchanan, Dickenson and Wise counties. Three members are appointed by the Senate Committee on Rules, including one each from Buchanan, Dickenson and Wise counties.
“The Coalfields Expressway is a very critical issue for Southwest Virginia and for our economic development around here,” said Jonathan Belcher, who serves as the executive director of both the Virginia Coalfields Expressway Authority and the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority.
Once the CFX authority started meeting in the fall of 2020, things started “moving along again and quite well,” in particular thanks to the recent federal funding secured by U.S. Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, D-Va., as well as Rep. Morgan Griffifth, R-Salem, Belcher said.
Congress recently allocated $1.9 million in the Fiscal Year 2022 government funding bill to help with the planning, budgeting, and design required to expand the Coalfields Expressway. A new study will revisit a 16.5-mile section proposed from Grundy to the West Virginia state line. The appropriation is unrelated to funding in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, which included almost $20 million for the Appalachian Development Highway System. The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) estimates the cost for that section of the proposed route to be between $1.5 billion and $1.8 billion.
Kaine came to Grundy in April for a roundtable discussion with board members of the Virginia Coalfields Expressway Authority at the Southern Gap Transportation and Logistics Center to talk about the future of the project. “The Coalfields Expressway will allow Virginians to get around more easily and promote economic development throughout the region,” Kaine said in an email last week. “But in order for a project to be successful, it must be planned well,” he said.
Kaine and board members discussed additional ways to continue to move the project forward. A next step includes seeking federal funding to pave 2.2 miles of U.S. 121 within the Corridor Q project to four lanes.
Corridor Q is adjacent to the industrial park at Southern Gap in Buchanan County, and current paving funds call for paving of just two lanes and a truck climbing lane. “From an economic development standpoint, it would be very beneficial to have four lanes adjacent to the Southern Gap industrial park,” Belcher said. “It’ll be open by 2027, but what you would see right now would be a two-lane unless we get the additional funding to make it a four-lane.”
In his email last week, Kaine said that he recently joined Warner in submitting a request for funding design and construction of the Hawk’s Nest portion of Corridor Q for Fiscal Year 2023. “I will continue to work with the Coalfields Expressway Authority so we can see those plans through,” he said.
Griffith, the congressman from Salem, attended a board meeting in Lebanon just last week, where he reiterated his commitment to the CFX project. “This roadway has a huge benefit in Virginia and will transform the economy, or at least gives us a fighting chance to transform the economy,” he said in a statement, adding that the Coalfields Expressway in Virginia and its connectivity to Kentucky and West Virginia also benefits those states by providing another transportation artery to the south. “This road will give us bigger and better opportunities to land some major job creators,” Griffith said.
While there are signs of hope for more federal help to pay for the project, stakeholders want to tap into more funding sources from the state – especially in a fiscal year that leaves the commonwealth with flush coffers. In May, members of the Virginia Coalfields Expressway Authority met at the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center in Abingdon with VDOT officials, including Secretary of Transportation Sheppard Miller, to consider the region’s piece of the commonwealth’s overall $51 billion six-year road plan.
“We have a problem – with transportation,” authority chair Jake Rife stressed at the meeting. He noted that while some road improvements related to Route 460 are underway, “we still need the Coalfields Expressway to get us to other points. Not only will it help Buchanan, Dickenson and Wise counties, but it will open up Scott and Lee and it will alleviate some of the I-81 traffic.”
Belcher said that while the authority is working to apply for grants at the federal level for the project, it is challenged in that it has never had any state funding, with state matching funds often being required to apply for federal grants. He urged that Virginia look at providing funding and also at including the CFX in the six-year plan.
Miller, however, said that when VDOT considers road projects, it looks long term. “We do not build roads for 10 years from now, but 30, 40, 60,70 years from now,” he said during the meeting. “We are thoughtful of how we spend your money and are a very data driven organization.”
Macaulay Porter, a spokeswoman for Gov. Glenn Youngkin, said in an email last week that the Youngkin administration understands the value that the region places on this project and that they are currently focused on completing Corridor Q. “We continue to look for funding and ways to advance the other pieces of the project,” Porter said.
Also in attendance in the meeting with state officials was State Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell County, who asked VDOT to consider a study on the roadway commissioned by the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority last year from Chmura Economics & Analytics, which pointed to its value to the commonwealth and the citizens in the region.
The Chmura study found that while construction of the Coalfields Expressway would cost $3.1 billion, the cumulative economic impact of the CFX during a 50-year span would amount to 12.8 billion in 2021 dollars. The study also projects that construction of the CFX would inject an annual average of $225.4 million into the local economy during a 25-year period and that it would generate 1,543 jobs each year in that period.
“I’ve been hearing about the Coalfields Expressway since I was a small child, that’s how long it’s been,” Hackworth said in a recent phone interview. Born and raised in Buchanan County, Hackworth moved to Tazewell County after getting married. “But I’m aware of the challenges that Buchanan County has experienced over the years with the lack of infrastructure and really no major road, besides US-460, and trying to get equipment, goods, manufacture materials from point A to 460 has always been a challenge,” he said.
Del. Will Morefield, R-Tazewell County – Hackworth’s colleague across the hall in the House of Delegates – said that he has spent some time since the meeting in May seeking a solution to help secure funding and expedite the construction of the Coalfields Expressway.
Morefield said that he may have found a path that may not require legislation or a budget amendment from the General Assembly. Instead, the project could benefit from a federal conduit bond program made available to Virginia that is rarely used.
Private Activity Bonds (PAB) available to provide interest free capital for privately backed projects could “potentially be used for private companies to build a portion of the CFX,” Morefield said. “It is possible for coal mining companies to help expedite construction of the project by surface mining coal in areas where road beds must be constructed. This type of mining and road construction is often referred to as ‘coal-synergy.’”
The incentive for the coal companies would be to surface mine the coal, and the commonwealth would get the construction of road beds at a lower cost, Morefield said. “Coal companies were successful in using coal-synergy practices to build roadbeds in the past and reduce the cost of construction for the project. The only difference today is that coal and mining related companies are finding it difficult to access the capital they need to operate.”
The coal companies should qualify for PAB funding to build the roadbeds under the current qualifying guidelines, especially since inflation is increasing the cost of mining and operating a business to a point where it’s becoming extremely challenging, Morefield said.
“The incentive for the coal companies would be the ability to mine coal and access interest free capital. This would increase demand for more coal mining jobs and help expedite the CFX construction without appropriating additional state funding at the current time,” Morefield said, adding that he has already started conversations with some people in the coal industry about this idea. “There is interest,” he said. “It is my hope that VDOT will be receptive to this idea and find creative ways to expedite construction.”
For lawmakers and members of the Virginia Coalfields Expressway Authority, timing is crucial because the CFX really is a tri-state project bringing together the interests of Virginia, Southwest Virginia and Kentucky. “Without the completion of all of it, all three states suffer,” said Belcher, the authority’s executive director.
While West Virginia has been making good progress on its part of the Coalfields Expressway, the state’s investments are not going to be fully realized without the completion of CFX stretch in the Virginia part of it, because “it won’t really connect to anything meaningful on the western part of the West Virginia section,” Belcher said,
In Kentucky there would be a gap as well. “You’d be able to travel US-460, but you won’t have the east-west connection that the Expressway provides, so Kentucky would benefit from there, which is why it comes down to each state having to see to it that their part is completed,” Belcher said.
In comparison, Virginia is way behind. With Corridor Q being the only section of the CFX currently under construction to be completed by 2027, more than 50 miles of the proposed highway remain unfunded and not under construction – with the expectation of $1.9 million for the pre-engineering study for the 16.5-mile section proposed from Grundy to the West Virginia state line.
“That is what is really needed, is to get construction funding for it and that’s the challenge right now given the price tag, and with inflation that increases by significant amounts,” Belcher said. “It will grow beyond the $4 billion easily the more time goes by.”
And because of the difficulty of getting construction dollars, providing a timeline for a completed project becomes increasingly speculative, Belcher added. “I would like to see at least for Virginia to make some progress during the next 10 to 20 years,” he said.
For Todd Elswick, the owner of Paul’s Fan Company in Grundy, that might be too late, and he won’t rule out moving his company of 63 employees to a different part of the state with better infrastructure. “We have thought about relocating and we are even thinking about that now,” he said. “But our roots are here, I have three sons in the business now that are working with me, and the people that are here, the skilled workforce that I need and the good old fashioned work ethic is here. We would like to stay.”
At a time when Virginia can take advantage of a historic budget surplus, Elswick struggles to understand why the dire transportation needs in the far Southwest are not being considered enough.
“I would like for folks who live east of Roanoke try and comprehend how difficult it is here, geographically, because of the lack of the roads,” Elswick said. “It is a very, very unique situation here, and my lifelong statement has been that the state of Virginia does not end in Roanoke. There is another part of us folks down here who over the years have been major contributors to the state’s budget with very little return on those monies that we sent, and that frustrates me.”