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W. Va. drivers' patience is wearing thin

January 23, 1999|By DAVE McMILLION

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - Things are getting a little tense in the wait to widen W.Va. 9.

After he helped pass a resolution in the state Senate last week in support of widening the road, Sen. John Unger asked how many more lives will have to be sacrificed before the road is built.

The first-term Berkeley County Democrat groused about how northern Virginia can build a highway of the same magnitude in a year, but in the Eastern Panhandle it takes a decade.

A member of a grass-roots organization that has criticized the design of the $110 million project said her group has been unfairly blamed for the delays.

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Jane Grissinger, of Common Sense Route 9, said her group wants the road as much as anyone, but no one believes her.

"It just makes me mad we're the scapegoats. It has not been our doing," she said.

It doesn't get any better out on the highway.

Business owners along W.Va. 9 worry about getting their employees and trucks in and out of their entrances safely, and motorists complain about delays due to increasing congestion.

Traffic started backing up on Wiltshire Road on Friday afternoon as workers began leaving Norm Thompson Outfitters and Royal Vendors, two manufacturing plants off W.Va. 9 in Bardane.

Loretta Lewis, who works at Norm Thompson, said sometimes she has to wait in traffic 15 or 20 minutes on Wiltshire Road before she can turn onto W.Va. 9.

The tricky part is pulling into traffic without getting sideswiped, said Lewis.

"You have to floor it," said Lawrence Galton as he waited in the line Friday. "Sometimes, getting out of here, you have to risk your life," he said.

"They need to do something. Everybody else is improving their roads," added Lewis.

State Police Sgt. Jim Humphrey said it is "next to impossible" to make a left turn on W.Va. 9 and cut across traffic.

"We run on wrecks constantly in this detachment," said Humphrey, who works in the Berkeley County detachment on Edwin Miller Boulevard in Martinsburg.

Deaths on the highway increased last year, although the number of accidents fell slightly, according to state Division of Highways figures.

Between July 1997 and June 1998, there were 569 accidents on the highway between Berkeley Springs and the Virginia line in Jefferson County, according to Carlin Kendrick of the traffic engineering division.

Six people were killed in the wrecks.

There were 630 accidents during the previous year, resulting in two deaths, said Kendrick.

In 1995, there were 548 accidents resulting in two deaths, according to state figures.

The projected start-up date for construction is about the same, although it may be a little earlier.

Last summer, state highway officials said the first spade of dirt could be turned in 2000. Now it could be late next year, said Randy Epperly, a Division of Highways engineer who has worked on the project from the beginning.

Epperly said the project has been delayed considerably because of challenges by people who fear the new road will threaten historic landmarks.

Common Sense Route 9 members, for example, felt a group of properties near the Shenandoah River, including Federal Hill farm and some canal locks, might constitute a historic district that should be considered in the building of the road, said Epperly.

It was later ruled that the area did not constitute a historical district, he said.

Grissinger said Common Sense Route 9 members still opposed the new segment of W.Va. 9 being planned between Charles Town and the Virginia line. The group fears a $2.4 million bridge that will cross the Shenandoah River will have too big an impact on the area, and a lot of oil, salt and other pollutants could enter the river.

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