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Despite mounting death count, some still try to block W.Va. 9 upgrade

July 14, 2002|by TIM ROWLAND

I wonder if any of those who have so staunchly opposed construction of a four-lane W.Va. 9 in the Eastern Panhandle feel the slightest shift in their gut every time they hear that more dead bodies have had to be pried out of smoldering wreckage on this terribly outdated highway.

Three more people died Wednesday. A dump truck and a Toyota collided head-on near the Opequon Creek bridge, setting off a deadly chain crash involving seven vehicles. The truck came to rest on top of a Jeep Cherokee, the SUV "crumpled under the dump truck's grill, leaving it unrecognizable except for the tires," according to The Morning Herald.

This ought to sober every person who has tried to stonewall the W.Va. 9 project, particularly those who are dragging the project through a quagmire of litigation.

As the years go on and this project is delayed, it is these people who increasingly have to live with themselves every time they pick up the paper and read about another death - knowing, deep down, that it probably wouldn't have happened on a modern, four-lane highway.

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Of course some of them will never see the local papers because they live in Virginia and never have to drive the road themselves.

But groups that are so lawsuit happy ought to be careful. At some point in the future, a grieving family member could quite conceivably decide to seek some serious cash from the litigaters themselves, the ones who stood in the way of public safety.

This is not to indict every person who has raised a question or voiced a concern over the project. Indeed, it is the responsibility of the citizenry to be something of a watchdog over the Department of Highways and see that the project is done correctly and fairly. And certainly, if you are losing your land to the right-of-way, your voice has a lot more legitimacy than those people of Loudoun County who don't want to be bothered by a few extra West Virginians driving through their back yards.

But the arguments have been made. Concerns have been voiced. Studies have been performed. There will be some losers and the project's route and scope will not satisfy everyone.

The time for debate has long since passed. It's time to allow the construction to proceed unabated.

Plaintiffs against the road department on Dec. 14, 2001, asked for a halt to everything - planning, acquisition of right-of-way, financing and construction on the Charles Town-Virginia line stretch of the highway. They said the state hadn't performed proper environmental studies, particularly in regard to the Shenandoah River crossing.

In January, the state announced it had reached an agreement with the plaintiffs by which it could continue with highway construction on all portions except the bridge. But then in April, the plaintiffs filed a second suit, again seeking to stop the entire project east of Charles Town.

I don't pretend to know all the thinking, motives and undercurrents that are at play here.

But on the face of it, it appears that opponents are using the "environment" and "history" as an excuse for blocking a project that for whatever reasons they don't want to see move forward.

It's no secret that a number of people are concerned over the rate of growth in Jefferson County. And admirably, I would say, they have worked to preserve the county's beauty and rural charm - inspired, no doubt, by the unreal growth in Loudoun and Frederick counties.

But the way to battle growth is with land controls, not by perpetuating the existence of a deadly, twisting, two-lane road that is jam-packed with traffic at nearly all hours of the day.

The road needed to be replaced 10 years ago when, just east of Martinsburg, 12,600 cars passed through every day. By 1997, that number had jumped 40 percent to 17,700 and if nothing's done by 2012, that number will more than double to almost 40,000 vehicles - a car or truck nearly every two seconds, 24 hours a day.

That's crazy. Many interstates aren't that busy.

Not surprisingly, W.Va. 9 is almost twice as deadly as the average state road, and accidents happen three times more often than they do on the average four-lane road.

I'm sure that for the most part, construction opponents are well-intentioned. But W.Va. 9 has become so overcrowded, so dangerous, so temper-flaring frustrating, that it is time opponents look themselves in the mirror and ask: Is it worth three or four lives a year not to have an extra set of bridge piers in the Shenandoah? Are five lives a year a good tradeoff for saving a little ground that a Washington family member may have puttered around on?

What's it worth to try to discourage growth from happening quite as rapidly? Eight lives a year? Ten? Two lives per subdivision?

Make no mistake, that dump truck and that Toyota never would have crossed paths on a four-lane highway. Three more people would be alive today. And it just as easily could have happened east of Charles Town as west.

As one eyewitness to the horrific accident so aptly put it: "How many deaths is it going to take before they get it?"

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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