In W.Va., road division

December 09, 2000

In W.Va., road division

By DAVE McMILLION / Staff Writer

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - When 45 Morgan County residents showed up at a public meeting a week ago to voice concerns about a new highway in their town, they represented a growing trend.

Public opposition to state highway projects in the Eastern Panhandle is becoming commonplace.

In Martinsburg, a group calling itself the Berkeley County Citizens Coalition has formed because of concerns over how a proposed Martinsburg bypass may affect the quality of life around town.

In Jefferson County, residents have been raising concerns for years about the environmental impact and road designs associated with the proposal to expand W.Va. 9 from two to four lanes.

Residents said the concerns can be attributed in part to a state highway department that uses outdated figures to reach its conclusions, does not take citizen concerns seriously into consideration and rushes to judgment on road designs without considering public input.


"It sounds strange to say this day and time, but (it's) state government oppression," said Cheryl Long, a spokeswoman for the Berkeley County Citizens Coalition.

A top official for the state Division of Highways strongly disagrees with the assertions.

Dave Clevenger said the highway department has worked to increase public involvement in the highway design process. He cited as an example the department's decision to establish Web sites explaining the design process of the expanded W.Va. 9 and offering residents a chance to submit questions about road design via e-mail.

Clevenger, is head of the consulting and review section for the Division of Highways.

"I think, compared to the past, there has definitely been a big push to get information out to the public," Clevenger said.

Although the Web sites have been available for months, residents still complain about a perceived lack of responsiveness in the highway department's approach to road design.

Barbara Tutor, a member of the Morgan County Citizens' Coalition, said the highway department has used data dating to three years ago to make its case for expanding U.S. 522 from two to four lanes through Morgan County. Tutor believes that if the highway department used more current data the results would not support the need for the new road.

The Morgan County Citizens Coalition hired its own civil engineer, who claims traffic volume on the road has decreased in some cases.

Gerald P. Neily said he found that traffic counts conducted by the state show traffic on U.S. 522 has grown less than 8 percent over the last eight years.

That's in contrast to state projections that traffic volume on the road would increase by 32 percent over the eight-year period, Neily said.

Tutor and others have also complained about the highway department's process of gathering public comments about road projects.

The department used to hold public hearings which sometimes attracted huge crowds. People who wanted to speak appeared and asked questions of highway officials.

Now the department holds workshops for people wanting to learn about highway projects.

There is no formal presentation in the workshops. Instead, highways officials with expertise in different areas like engineering and environmental and historical protection set up stations where residents can ask questions.

Tutor said she likes the public meeting format better because she believes it gives highway officials a better idea of a community's overall reaction to a project.

She considers the workshop format a "divide and conquer type thing."

Clevenger said the department changed the format because opponents to highway projects would often "grandstand" and others would not get a chance to ask questions.

Responding to the complaint about using old data, Clevenger said it sometimes takes several years to put together reports on highway proposals. Data contained in a report may be up to three years old because that is when the report was started, he said.

The highways department tries to update data in its reports as much as possible, he said.

Some citizens say they don't feel highway officials listen to their questions, and they complain about vital details missing from highway plans.

Long questions the design of the proposed bypass around Martinsburg to relieve traffic congestion downtown. She said she has counted six intersections, or "at-grade" crossings, where traffic from other roads can enter the bypass.

"That's a road that opens development," Long said.

Long said she believes there needs to be a comprehensive plan to control downtown traffic rather than building a bypass.

"We have to look to the future. We don't think slapping in a bypass is the answer to everything," Long said.

Despite her criticism of the highway department, Long praised Del. Larry Faircloth, R-Berkeley; Del. John Overington, R-Berkeley; Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley; and attorney Laura Rose for representing the interests of her group.

Rose said the highway department invited Berkeley County residents to submit comments about the planned bypass. However, a decision was made so soon after the comments were submitted Rose believes they were not fully examined.

"It wouldn't take a rocket scientist to see they just went through the formality. That struck me as being clearly wrong," Rose said.

Clevenger disagreed that the department has not been responsive to citizen comments. He said the highway department has made as least three design changes to U.S. 522 based on citizen concerns, and is re-examining the Martinsburg bypass plan due to citizen concerns.

State highway officials say while they try to listen to concerns of citizens, they must keep in mind the department's challenge of providing effective transportation for the entire population.

"That's our role, to make sure you can get from point A to point B in a safe means," said Bob Amtower, a district engineer for the department.

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