Paving the Way: U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito talks infrastructure
CHARLESTON — U.S. 35 through Putnam and Mason counties and Corridor H through the Potomac Highlands might be on opposite sides of the state, but the completion of both roads can connect the state to the Eastern Seaboard and the Midwest, an effort U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito has been working on for 20 years.
Capito recently toured sections of Route 35 and Corridor H with federal and state transportation officials. Both projects highlight different parts of her congressional service, with Route 35 being a priority of Capito’s when she served in the U.S. House of Delegates, while turning her focus to completing Corridor H since elected to the U.S. Senate in 2014.
Capito has worked to secure funding for both projects through her committee assignments over the years: as a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee during her first term in the House in 2001 and as a member of the U.S. Senate Committee in Appropriations and chairwoman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee.
“Throughout my career, I’ve been on major committees that have influence in transportation. It’s about funding,” Capito said. “It’s economic development. It’s moving goods and services, taking products out of West Virginia for commerce. It’s a safety thing too, a big-time safety thing, in terms of heavily trafficked roads.”
U.S. 35 connects West Virginia and southern Michigan, traveling through Indiana and Ohio to connect to Interstate 64 in Putnam County.
More than 20 years ago, Route 35 in West Virginia was just a two-lane road, but increased commercial truck traffic – including the new Toyota plant in Buffalo – made the road increasingly crowded and unsafe.
“Throughout the course of my early congressional career, Route 35 all two lanes except for about a mile and a half moving towards Point Pleasant,” Capito said.
The road was re-designed as a four-lane expressway to handle the increase in traffic and to help move goods in and out of the state. During her first three two-year terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, Capito helped secure $105 million for Route 35. By 2018 Capito had helped secure $512 million for the project. The projected end date for the four-lane widening is set for July of next year.
“It’s a major corridor of people connecting to go down south from the Midwest, from Michigan and Ohio and Indiana and those areas,” Capito said. “It’s very heavily truck-trafficked as well and a safety hazard. I’ve really put a huge emphasis – and there were a lot of local leaders there that really pushed this – to try to get it completed.”
On the other end of the state is Corridor H, a 157-mile road connecting Interstate 79 at Weston to the Virginia border. Corridor H is the last project of the Appalachian Development Highway System. The highway will significantly speed up travel to the Washington, D.C., area and the Northeast Corridor, plus open up the state to more tourism.
The project, which has been decades in the making, is slated to be finished next summer. Capito toured the remaining section under construction July 13 near Kerens in Randolph County. Between 2013 and 2018, West Virginia had only received $10 million in discretionary federal funding for highways. During that time, Corridor H received zero funding between 2010 and 2018.
Since 2019, Capito has chaired the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works’ Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure. In the last two years, Capito secured $132 million in additional funding for Corridor H.
“It’s a magnificent piece of road, but it’s really tough terrain and very, very expensive,” Capito said. “It opens up major parts of our tourism industry to the eastern part of the United States. I’ve been working hand-in-hand through the years to try to get a formula funding, which comes through the big projects, but also discretionary project funding where these two projects (Corridor H and Route 35) particularly fit in. I’m excited to see. We still have a way go on Corridor H, but we really made a lot of progress in the last 10 years.”
IN THE FAST LANE
As West Virginia’s Congressional delegation has gained seniority, it’s gotten easier to pull down federal funding for highway projects across the state.
Once upon a time, U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd and Reps. Alan Mollohan and Nick Rahall were able to use their seniority and influence to bring billions to West Virginia for roads projects. With the defeat of Mollohan and Rahall in 2010 and 2014 and the death of Byrd in 2010, West Virginia lost a lot of its pull. The earmark system, used by lawmakers to direct federal funding to projects in states, also went away.
But with Republicans taking the majority in House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014, that helped put Capito and Reps. David McKinley, Alex Mooney, and Evan Jenkins in the driver’s seat and left U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin as the only Democrat left in the Congressional delegation.
Capito said the earmark system certainly made things easier for directing federal funding into state highways and infrastructure projects. It’s also slightly harder now to direct funding since Democrats took the majority in the House in 2018.
One way Capito is working to keep highway funding flowing and work with the Democratic majority in the House is a new infrastructure bill. The America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act would spend $287 billion over five years for road and bridge repairs nationally. For West Virginia, it would increase federal highway formula dollars by $50 million annually.
“We’ve put a lot of money in this new highway bill for bridges, because West Virginia has some of highest percentage of deficient bridges in the country,” Capito said. “That’s a safety hazard, so we were able to carve out some highways dollars specifically aimed at bridges. This is a problem all over the country, but I was specifically trying to look out for our bridges.”
Another project Capito and her staff have worked on is a trading program with states that have additional Appalachian Development Highway System over and above what they need. Those states can trade in those dollars for federal highway funds so states – such as West Virginia and Corridor H – that still have those kinds of projects can use those extra funds.
“I think states that have money sitting there would rather do that,” Capito said. “We, as the only remaining project in West Virginia, would have access to additional dollars through the Appalachian highway system. That’s one example of something that isn’t specifically earmarks, but it is earmarked to projects like that. That’s where we have kind of evolved.”
And it’s not just how people travel to and from the state on Capito’s mind, but how information travels to and from the state. Broadband expansion continues to be a major infrastructure priority and, in many ways, goes hand-in-hand with highways. In many cases, fiber lines are being installed alongside new stretches of highway as part of the state’s broadband plan.
Capito and the state Congressional delegation have included funding in several of the coronavirus relief packages to spur broadband expansion as many health checkups are being done through tele-health and education is being done by virtual lessons online.
As a member of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee and co-chair of the Senate Broadband Caucus, Capito is a co-sponsor of the Accelerating Broadband Connectivity Act. It includes funding for winners of a FCC Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction to complete their broadband projects quickly. Capito said the best way to get broadband to last-mile households is the same way the state built roads – by going directly into hard-to-reach places.
“At the end of the day, while I would like to think that we can have satellite and hotspots and WiFi, to really get it through these mountains to the last business or the last house, I just think right now fiber is going to be the answer at least in the next two decades,” Capito said. “It’s just too hard to get the signal in. We’ve got a sparse population which can’t drive it economically, so that’s an issue for us. Putting it in with the highway dollars is a big deal.”