MORGANTOWN — Due to the complexities of the federal regulatory process, the state of West Virginia is worried it can’t make good on its promise to deliver improved interstate access to Mountaintop Beverage via a new I-79 Harmony Grove interchange in a timely fashion.
To remedy that, the West Virginia Division of Highways now says it’s going to build a $70 million bridge over the Monongahela River by the end of 2025 in addition to building the nearby Harmony Grove exit, currently estimated at $41 million.
The key phrase there is “in addition to.”
“It’s not a give and take. It’s a give and give situation,” Morgantown Monongalia Metropolitan Planning Organization Executive Director Bill Austin said. “They are committed, from everything they’ve told us, to Harmony Grove and to this bridge idea.”
Local officials have been digesting this information for about a week. It was made public on Wednesday.
But it’s been brewing in Charleston at least since May.
That, according to Austin, is when he heard secondhand that the DOH had hired a consultant under the auspices of the Harmony Grove project to conduct a feasibility study.
On July 18, an advertisement ran in the Charleston Gazette-Mail seeking a firm to produce right-of-way plans and construction contract plans for a bridge connecting U.S. 119 to the industrial park.
On July 19, the DOH showed up with the preliminary design study in hand to inform local officials of its intentions and task the MPO Policy Board with selecting a location for the new bridge.
When it meets in August, the MPO Policy Board will select from:
- A bridge crossing the river south of the Morgantown Lock and north of the BFS gas station on Don Knotts Boulevard. This option would include a more basic bridge but require a complete reconstruction of River Road. A portion of the existing River Road would remain to provide access to homes and businesses.
- A crossing that would meet U.S. 119 north of Scott Avenue and include an intersection with Smithtown Road. This option would require a more expensive bridge but connect directly to the southern end of the industrial park’s street network.
Due to topographical challenges, a third option crossing the river at Green Bag Road was eliminated.
According to data provided Wednesday, all options were estimated to fall between $64 million and $71 million.
Ultimately, Wednesday’s announcement begs a question – will the state actually build two projects currently estimated north of $110 million to better connect the industrial park?
Both Austin and Morgantown Area Partnership President and CEO Russ Rogerson say they believe it will.
One, Rogerson said, the state has committed to doing so. Two, he continued, the Harmony Grove project will be primarily financed locally through the new Morgantown Industrial Park TIF district.
“At some point you have to say ‘We trust you’ or ‘we don’t trust you.’ If the option is not allowing the state to meet the commitment they made to Mountaintop – if we say no – then we’re automatically saying Mountaintop is not going to expand and we’re not going to have anything for the industrial park. At that point we might as well fold up shop,” Austin said. “Everybody is taking it at face value. I understand the skepticism. I was skeptical.”
In May, Mountaintop Beverage CEO Jeffrey Sokal told The Dominion Post the 330,000 square-foot bottling facility wouldn’t be in West Virginia without infrastructure commitments from the state — specifically the new Harmony Grove interchange.
On Wednesday, he said he believes the state will honor that commitment, allowing both Mountaintop Beverage and the surrounding park to grow.
“On a long-term basis, [Morgantown Industrial Park] access to both 68 via the bridge and 79 via Harmony Grove makes this industrial site and the 100 or so acres of undeveloped property extremely attractive to companies like Mountaintop,” Sokal said. “The governor, the DOH and local representatives like Senator Mike Oliverio and Delegate Joe Statler should be commended for making this happen.”
Monongalia County Commission President Tom Bloom said he too is hopeful everything the DOH has promised will come to fruition.
“They have continued to state that this administration is in support of moving ahead on both projects,” he said. “We have requested to get that in writing, and we have gotten as much assurance as we can get without getting it in writing.”