The Coalfields Expressway in West Virginia. Courtesy of Famartin.

In the 1980s, after the Norfolk & Western headquarters left town to become Norfolk Southern, Roanoke went through a long period of angst over what kind of place it would be if it was no longer a railroad town. As community leaders watched the economy change, they became increasingly aware of something the city lacked: a four-year state university.

There were some wild proposals, such as creating a University of Roanoke. (Probably a good thing that didn’t fly, given how enrollments are now dropping.) More practical-minded community leaders instead looked to build a closer relationship with the four-year state university that was just over the mountains – Virginia Tech. In 1986, Roanoke Mayor Noel Taylor proposed a way to bring Virginia Tech physically closer to Roanoke – by building a new highway that would create a shortcut from Interstate 81 through the Ellett Valley to Blacksburg.

The idea percolated along for a while but didn’t really go anywhere until … well, here’s what I wrote for The Roanoke Times a few years ago:

“Then one day in 1989 Cave Spring Supervisor Dick Robers read a story in the Wall Street Journal about new technology being developed in Europe that would equip cars with ‘electronic navigation systems’ and install sensors in roadbeds to keep traffic flowing smoothly. Robers talked up the idea that the proposed Roanoke-Blacksburg road could become a research site for these futuristic gizmos. ‘We could really be getting in on the ground floor,’ Robers enthused.

“Keep in mind that at the time, Roanoke politicians and business leaders tended to regard Roanoke County the way big brothers of a certain age sometimes treat little sisters – an annoyance to be shooed away. Who is this Dick Robers fellow anyway? Yet here he was, advancing the idea that would transform the proposed road from a simple highway project – to a high-tech project.”

Now, good news, bad news.

The bad news is that the 5.7-mile connector highway Taylor envisioned has yet to be built and probably never will be, although a 2.2-mile test bed was. The good news, though, is that the “smart road” idea helped lead to the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, the nation’s second-biggest university-affiliated transportation research center, and accelerated the growth of a cluster of transportation-related businesses in the New River Valley.

That’s a long wind-up to this: Here’s a slow-moving or no-moving road project that started moving once it became part of a technology experiment. Some of you may have already guessed where I’m headed – although, in fairness, the headline might have given it away.

Cardinal’s Markus Schmidt – the only full-time reporter in the state capital year-round representing a news organization west of Richmond – recently wrote about the difficulties in getting the Coalfields Expressway built. In 1995, Congress designated the proposed road as a “high priority corridor” but precious little has happened since. If this is “high priority,” what does “low priority” look like? West Virginia – where coal country matters a lot more than in Virginia – started building its 59-mile section in 1999 and has plans to complete construction within 10 years, which still seems mighty slow but is far ahead of what Virginia has done with its proposed 49-mile corridor. Virginia hasn’t moved much dirt at all, although there is finally work underway on a 7-mile section around Grundy. Notably, while Congress has put up some money for the road, Virginia never has. And that money Congress has put up – $1.9 million for fiscal year 2022 – is nowhere close to what’s necessary. The price tag of the Virginia section is now put at $4 billion, which makes it the largest road project in the state. 

Some context: Expanding the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel from four lanes to six lanes costs $3.8 billion. Adding new lanes along a 22.5-mile stretch of Interstate 66 in Northern Virginia costs $3.7 billion. Reality check: Is the state really going to put up $4 billion to build a road through Buchanan and Dickenson counties, two of the least populated counties in the state? Yes, Jonathan Belcher, the executive director of the Virginia Coalfields Economic Development Authority (and also the Coalfields Expressway Authority), recently told The Voice, a weekly newspaper in Buchanan County, that the road is “the only solution to the economic plight of many areas of the coalfields.” He may very well be right, but this is an awful lot of money for the state to spend in a part of Virginia that’s long been easy for Richmond to ignore. We’ve had a hard time coming up with the money to take care of the roads we now have, and Gov. Glenn Youngkin of late has been focused on reducing that amount through a proposed gas tax holiday – which might be good for drivers at the pump now (critics disagree, saying there’s no guarantee that gas companies won’t simply raise their prices) but won’t help produce more revenue for the long term. I hate to be a Cassandra but I have a hard time seeing state funding for the Coalfields Expressway ever happening. All we have to do is look at the past three decades of near inaction. What political forces are going to mysteriously arise to produce this money?

I can only think of two things. One is some gargantuan statewide bond issue for road construction where the Coalfields Expressway gets tacked onto the list as a way to make the list look statewide. The problem is the state hasn’t had a bond referendum of any kind in two decades – not since 2002, and those two were pikers by comparison: $900 million for college facilities, $119 million for park facilities.

The other is some gimmick that opens up avenues of funding that aren’t currently available. Del. Will Morefield, R-Tazewell County and one of the most creative thinkers in the General Assembly, thinks he has one: Private Activity Bonds that would provide interest-free capital to private companies to build a portion of the road. Cardinal’s Markus Schmidt deals with this in more detail in his story.

I have another suggestion, one born from the New River Valley’s experience in getting some early funding for what we now call the Smart Road: Make the Coalfields Expressway a solar highway.

Before I talk about what I mean, let me first talk about what I don’t mean. About a decade ago there was a flurry of interest in turning roads into giant, linear solar farms. The idea seemed appealing: Why take up valuable farmland for solar farms when we could just pave roads with solar panels? The Netherlands built a bike path of solar panels in 2014. France built a 1-kilometer (0.62-mile) Wattway Solar Road in Normandy in 2016. China built a 1-kilometer stretch of a solar road in the provincial capital of Jinan in 2017.

Now for the bad news. They didn’t work. Even the groups you’d think would be most excited about such things say so:

“France’s Solar Road Is a Complete Failure.” – Extreme Tech

“French Solar Road Wattway Fails.’’ – Popular Mechanics

“France’s Wattway solar road proves to be a big, expensive failure.” – CNET

The reasons are simple: The solar panels weren’t durable enough to withstand traffic. And they didn’t produce nearly enough power to justify the expense.

But does that mean the solar road idea is dead?

No.

We all know examples of technology that failed before it succeeded. Lots of people tried to fly before the Wright Brothers figured out the physics. Lots of rockets blew up on the launch pad before some finally took off. There’s still work being done trying to figure out how to make solar roads more durable and more productive. Curiosity Lab – a publicly funded research center run by the Atlanta suburb of Peachtree Corners – is now experimenting with what amounts to a second generation of solar roadway.

Should the Coalfields Expressway Authority explore this? Why couldn’t a small stretch of the Coalfields Expressway become a test bed for this technology – with a commitment to make the whole road a solar road if it works?

Here’s my thinking: There might be some funding available for solar technology that wouldn’t otherwise be available for the road. And, let’s face it, some people might object to spending billions to blast through mountains just so that coal companies can get their coal to market in a more efficient fashion – no matter that the coal we’re talking about is metallurgical coal used in steel-making and not steam coal used in coal-fired power plants. (Of course, some might object to spending anything to blast through the mountains, on the grounds that environmental concerns should outweigh the economic concerns). What would happen if a road through the fossil fuel heartland could be a test case for renewable energy?

Even if the solar roadway concept still proves a bust, there are other ways to leverage the solar energy boom for the Coalfields Expressway. Georgia, not exactly a woke leftist state of tree-hugging hippies, is now putting solar arrays at some interchanges – it’s basically free land. Oregon’s done the same (OK, Portland might be a woke leftist city-state of tree-hugging hippies). Massachusetts is experimenting with solar panels on sound barriers by highways.

At the risk of bringing up the T-name, then-President Donald Trump once suggested making his long-sought border wall with Mexico a solar wall. The Atlantic magazine derided this as a “politically simplistic troll.” However in 2019, a consortium of engineers and scientists led by Purdue University concluded that there might be something to this: Instead of a wall, they produced a plan for a 1,954-mile “energy park” of solar farms, wind farms, natural gas pipelines and desalination facilities “that together would create an industrial park along the border unlike anything found anywhere else in the world.” Renewable Energy World, probably not a website that many in the Trump White House were reading, hailed the idea: “The facilities would provide the desired border security, the researchers say, because utility facilities and infrastructure must be well-protected. The connected energy parks would also be an economic driver, both in the construction of the facilities themselves and in the businesses that would be attracted to the region by cheap electricity and plentiful water resources.”

Purdue professor Luciana Castillo told the website: “Just like the transcontinental railroad transformed the United States in the 19th century, or the Interstate system transformed the 20th century, this would be a national infrastructure project for the 21st century. It would do for the Southwest what the Tennessee Valley Authority has done for the Southeast over the last several decades.”

Nothing came of that, of course, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea. Why couldn’t elements of that idea be applied to the Coalfields Expressway? Virginia’s coal country is trying to pivot from being simply a coal capital to an energy capital – why couldn’t this be part of that? Invite the Purdue team down to take a look and offer some suggestions. See if there’s a partnership available between the Purdue group and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, between the Coalfields Expressway Authority and the Southwest Virginia Energy Authority. Instead of planning a 49-mile road through Virginia, what if we were planning a 49-mile “energy park” that just happened to have a road through it? Would help secure funding that isn’t available now? And would that transform the region economically in ways we can’t imagine now? I don’t know the answers to the first two questions but I bet the answer to that last question is “yes.”

Nothing else seems to have worked over the past three decades; why not at least explore this?

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.