A VDOT map of the proposed Coalfields Expressway.

The Coalfields Expressway, a road construction project that could transform the far Southwest’s economy once completed, is one step closer to moving forward with a next critical phase that seeks to widen a 2.2-mile section within the so-called Corridor Q in Buchanan County to a four-lane highway. 

U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, D-Va., announced Tuesday that they had secured $7 million in federal funding in the Senate appropriations bill to aid the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) in the design and construction stages of the project. 

The tax dollars are included in a $135 million package in federal funding for Virginia that is part of the spending bill for fiscal year 2023. The legislation is set to move through the Senate Appropriations Committee later this year, followed by a vote on the Senate floor and, later, in the House of Representatives.

“In consultation with VDOT, which will handle this construction project, we determined that widening this section of the Coalfields Expressway into a four-lane would be the most beneficial use of the funds, because it will help to further open up that area for economic development, tourism, health care, and a variety of benefits to the community,” said Jonathan Belcher, the executive director of both the Virginia Coalfields Expressway Authority and the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority. 

“We are particularly grateful to our federal legislators for enabling this request. We cannot thank them enough for seeing the tremendous value of this project, which in my opinion is the single most important economic development project in the coalfield region of Virginia,” Belcher said.

The Coalfields Expressway – also dubbed CFX by transportation officials and formally designated U.S. Route 121 – is 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 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.

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. 

While the $7 million, which was the maximum amount that could be requested under the congressionally directed spending program, will not four-lane the entire section of the CFX from the Kentucky state line to Grundy, it will help to widen at least 2.2 miles into a four-lane – and potentially more – as VDOT evaluates how to best implement the project, Belcher said.   

The department is also looking at ways to expand the mileage that can be four-laned with these funds, Belcher added. One possible way is to expand the planned three-lane truck climbing lanes into four lanes, which would increase the mileage of the overall four-lane that could be accomplished with the $7 million. “We are working with the federal legislative offices on that potential modification,” Belcher said.

Considered the largest road project in Virginia’s history with a price tag up to $4 billion, progress has been slow for much of the 30 years since its inception, and the construction of the CFX in the commonwealth has not moved beyond its infancy stage.

But after the creation of the Virginia Coalfields Expressway Authority in 2017, which is tasked with improving transportation into, from, within and through Southwest Virginia, the pace has picked up – especially once Congress allocated $1.9 million in the Fiscal Year 2022 government funding bill to pay for a new study that will revisit a 16.5-mile section proposed of the highway from Grundy to the West Virginia state line. 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.

Warner, Kaine and their GOP colleague from across the hall in the House of Representatives – Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem – met with board members of the Virginia Coalfields Expressway Authority earlier this year to discuss the need for further funding of the CFX. 

In a joint email Tuesday, the two senators reiterated their support for the project. “Reliable, high quality transportation infrastructure – including well maintained expressways – are vital to Virginians’ quality of life and the strength of our local economies,” they said. “We’ve cleared the first hurdle by getting that funding into the Senate’s pending budget text, and will do all we can to make sure it’s in the final budget that gets across the finish line.”

State Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell County, who attended a meeting of Virginia Coalfields Expressway Authority representatives and VDOT officials, including Secretary of Transportation Sheppard Miller, in Abingdon last spring, called the senators’ announcement “a major milestone” in the timeline of the project.

“I can’t say how excited I am to see this be a reality, and I want to thank the senators. We were really pushing and asking them to help us, and they came through,” Hackworth said in a phone interview, adding that every completed mile of the CFX will help transform the region’s economy with time. 

“When you have a transportation route that gets goods and services into your area, it is a natural springboard for businesses to locate here, which in return creates jobs and opportunities for our young people. This is a good day for Southwest Virginia,” Hackworth said.

In addition to the $7 million earmarked for the CFX, the budget bills – if passed as-is – include funding for the following projects in Southwest Virginia and Southside:

  • $3 million for Rockbridge County to support the design and construction of a new raw water pump station.
  • $2 million to aid Virginia Passenger Rail Authority in their plans to advance rail from Roanoke to Christiansburg by funding a study to decide where new platforms should be constructed in Montgomery County.
  • $2 million for Amherst County to support the Amherst County Service Authority (ACSA) in their efforts to rehabilitate a publicly owned interceptor wastewater sewer.
  • $1.5 million to assist Energy DELTA Lab in their efforts to deploy a geothermal cooling system and related infrastructure improvements on site that meets the criteria for a hyperscale data center in Wise County.
  • $2.5 million for the Virginia Department of Transportation’s (VDOT) efforts to replace the Wiley Drive Bridge in Roanoke, which is prone to flooding. 
  • $2 million for the Town of South Boston in Halifax County to complete repairs and replace storm sewer lines in the area.
  • $1.2 million for the Appalachian Agency for Senior Citizens to aid its construction of a PACE Center that will expand access to care for older adults in Bristol. 
  • $1.2 million to support TriArea Community Health in the renovation of the Laurel Fork Clinic and Pharmacy to provide medical and behavioral health services to residents of Carroll, Floyd, and Patrick counties and the City of Galax. 
  • $1 million for the New River/Mount Rogers Workforce Development Board in their efforts to grow sector partnerships in skilled industrial, construction, and service trades in the New River Valley and Mount Rogers region.
  • $1 million to support the Marion Economic Development Authority in their efforts to rehabilitate blighted, abandoned and underutilized properties to provide more affordable homeownership opportunities for low to moderate income households.
  • $750,000 for the Southwest Virginia Workforce Development Board in their efforts to expand the ROPES (Recovery Opportunities and Pathways to Employment Success) program, which supports individuals in recovery by connecting them with intensive recovery and therapy opportunities and addressing other barriers to employment. Tazewell, Russell, Dickenson, Buchanan, Wise, Lee, and Scott counties and the City of Norton will benefit from the project.
  • $650,000 to aid Appalachian Center for Hope’s efforts to provide residential treatment for individuals experiencing substance use disorders in Smyth County. 
  • $617,000 for the Town of Tazewell for the development of a fire station. 
  • $500,000 for the Town of Pulaski in order to complete architectural and engineering design and conduct preservation construction activities for the Calfee Training School, to turn the historic Black school into a childcare, community, and cultural memory center.
  • $500,000 to aid St. Mary’s Health Wagon’s efforts to increase access to and utilization of prevention, treatment, and recovery services in Lee, Scott, Wise, Dickenson, Buchanan and Russell counties for individuals with behavioral health conditions, including substance use disorders.
  • $440,000 to support Roanoke’s Local Office on Aging’s efforts to transition their transportation services to a more environmentally sustainable model that will allow for expanded access to help seniors age in their communities.
  • $428,000 to assist Hollins University in their efforts to establish affordable access to continuing education needed for teachers to provide dual enrollment courses to students in the Roanoke Valley.
  • $375,000 in the Senate appropriations bill for the Virginia Community Telehealth Access Network Pilot Program at the Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association Foundation, which seeks to create a network of telehealth pods located next to U.S. Post Offices, providing clinical care in rural communities that lack adequate broadband and proximity to medical providers. Virginians in Lebanon, Keeling, Bumpass, and Palmyra will benefit from the project. 
  • $300,000 in the Senate appropriations bill to assist the Community Housing Partners Corporation in its efforts to construct energy efficient single family affordable housing in Blacksburg.
  • $255,000 for the Town of Goshen to purchase property to be renovated into a multi-use community center that will provide services including medical and dental services, a food pantry, social activities, legal services, a remote learning center, and an exercise space, among other community services.
  • $210,000 to assist the Appalachia Service Project in Lee, Wise, and Dickenson Counties with the purchasing of construction materials and supplies for emergency home repair and new construction for individuals below the federal poverty line in Southwest Virginia.
  • $188,000 for the Theatre Guild of Buchanan County to purchase indoor and outdoor equipment that will improve the overall audience experience and operational efficiency at the Community Arts Mainstage. 
  • $83,000 for the Town of Marion. The funding will allow the Town of Marion Police Department to provide a leadership and training program that would serve the law enforcement agencies in Southwest Virginia. 
  • $75,000 to aid the Rockbridge Area Transport System in their purchase of a stretcher van to provide non-emergency medical transport/stretcher transport services in Rockbridge, Alleghany and Augusta counties.

Markus Schmidt is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach him at markus@cardinalnews.org or 804-822-1594.