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Bridges, exits and ‘panhandling’: 2023 in Monongalia County

In World
December 31, 2023

Dec. 31—MORGANTOWN — The Monongalia County Commission maintains the lowest tax rate in West Virginia and lowered its budget by roughly 7 % in 2023.

That, in and of itself, would constitute a year end story in an age when government has seemingly embraced its role as everyone’s favorite extraction industry.

But there’s more.

“I honestly believe this was one of the best years ever for our community and for Monongalia County, ” Monongalia County Commission President Tom Bloom said.

Bloom points to the start of production at Mountaintop Beverage, which promises to be one of the state’s largest industrial players, as well as progress on county-wide broadband, an unprecedented three-way agreement to upgrade water and sewer services out toward Mylan Park, expansion of its industrial kitchen in the Mon County Center to include a food preservation component, and so on.

“Looking back, it’s 99 % positive, and these are things that will affect everyone for years to come, ” Bloom said. “We’re always looking forward. I’m excited to see what we can do in 2024.”

But, again, there’s more.

The drive for 155 The county got a rather sizable holiday gift on Dec. 15 when Sens. Shelley Moore Capito and Joe Manchin jointly announced $53.32 million for the Chaplin Hill Gateway Project, which includes bridge improvements, a new interchange and pedestrian and bicycle connections between I-79 Exit 155 and Mylan Park.

The funds come in addition to $66 million already promised by the state to reconfigure the primary vehicular connection from I-79 and Morgantown, Star City, Granville and WVU.

The overall project has multiple components, including replacing I-79 bridges over Chaplin Hill Road, reconstructing the interchange to a divergent diamond with a westbound flyover, and a pedestrian and bicycle connection between the Star City bridge and the regional rail-to-trail network.

The funding comes from the U.S. Department of Transportation Mega Grant Program—an infrastructure funding program in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act—to the Monongalia County Commission.

In addition to …

Everyone, local leadership included, was caught off guard in July when the state announced it was not only going to push forward with construction of a new Harmony Grove interchange off I-79, also but build a $70 million bridge across the Monongahela River to the Morgantown Industrial Park in the meantime.

That’s two projects, currently estimated at a total of about $100 million, to provide interstate access to the MIP.

Gov. Jim Justice and the West Virginia Division of Highways have said construction of the bridge will begin in spring 2024 with the new interchange beginning as early as 2025.

During the November meeting of the Morgantown Monongalia Metropolitan Planning Organization Policy Board, three Transportation Improvement Program amendments were approved.

All three pertained to the Harmony Grove project, including: $3.7 million in engineering work to be done in the current fiscal year ; $550, 000 in right-of-way acquisition in FY 2024-’25 ; and $25 million in construction in FY 2025-’26.

However, Department of Transportation Secretary Jimmy Wriston stoked lingering doubts earlier this month when he expressed his doubts to state lawmakers.

“We have always committed to [Harmony Grove ]. We know that it’s feasible. … I would bet you a dollar against a doughnut that the minute we start that other bridge project, the federal agencies may take a harder look at the interchange, ” he said.

Bloom called on Wriston to clarify his comments during the Dec. 13 commission meeting but has yet to get a response.

Don’t say panhandling As evidenced above, the county commission spent a lot of time talking about roads in 2023.

It also spent a lot of time talking about people standing in roads.

After about six months working with local municipalities, and a number of lawyers, the commission voted unanimously on Oct. 25 to adopt the Ordinance Regulating Pedestrian and Vehicle Safety in what was likely the county’s most controversial issue of 2023.

What began as an ordinance tailored to stop panhandling was rebranded mid-stream in an effort to skirt the free speech pitfalls that often doom such legislation.

The ordinance includes a number of prohibitions for both pedestrians within a right-of-way and vehicle passengers that would make it illegal activity for pedestrians to stand, sit or physically remain within a roadway for any reason apart from crossing the road. It also makes it illegal for both pedestrians and vehicle passengers to interact and pass or exchange items.

While the commissioners insist the law is solely about safety on local roads, opponents have said it unfairly targets the poor.

The day the ordinance was adopted civil rights groups including the ACLU of West Virginia and Mountain State Justice penned a joint letter stating, in part:

“You can slap a horn on a pony and call it a unicorn, but a unicorn this does not make. The Commission’s ordinance is equally fantastical, premised on the idea that sweeping bans on speech make a community safer or more inclusive. We tried to tell them ; now we’ll see them in court.”

Bloom said the county has yet to be notified of any legal challenges.

“That could still happen, ” he said, “But the law is working, and I think the community sees it’s working.”

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