Editorials, Opinion

Harmony Grove and the promise deferred

Five years ago, it was a dream to get large trucks off city roads in Westover and downtown Morgantown. Then it became a promise to a manufacturer that has long since been deferred. And now the long saga of the Harmony Grove interchange has taken yet another turn.

The Dominion Post first reported the idea for a new interstate interchange connecting the Morgantown Industrial Park to Interstates 68 and 79 in September 2018, when it was the subject of a public meeting in Westover.

In early 2020, the West Virginia Department of Transportation told Enrout Properties, the owners of the MIP, to move forward with an interstate justification report and environmental studies as required by the Federal Highway Administration. By mid-2020, the promise of easier interstate access to and from the industrial park sparked the interest of several investors — specifically, it was later revealed, Mountaintop Beverage. By October 2020, Monongalia County Commission, Enrout Properties and the West Virginia Department of Transportation signed a memorandum of understanding, and it was thought if everything went just right (emphasis on the “if”), the Harmony Grove interchange could be underway by March 2022.

In spring 2021, a new TIF district was approved to help pay for the future interchange. A year later, in spring 2022, the appropriate paperwork had been sent off to the state DOT and the FHA for review; Gov. Jim Justice, Sens. Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito and then-Congressman David McKinley all threw their political clout behind the project, requesting the federal government give the interchange an expedited review.

Then in February 2023, Monongalia County Commissioners learned at the Legislature’s Division of Highways Day that the Harmony Grove Interchange could still be four years away. Delegate Joe Statler hinted in May that acrimony in the Legislature toward north-central West Virginia’s economic success played a part in the interchange’s delay.

Also in May, Mountaintop Beverage’s CEO Jeffrey Sokal voiced frustration that the promised access still hadn’t materialized and may still be years out, though Enrout Properties’ Glenn Adrian was still hopeful the project could be finished by 2025. At that time, Adrian told The Dominion Post the rest of 2023 will likely be spent working with the West Virginia Division of Highways and the Federal Highway Administration finalizing a data-gathering process, followed by a state and federal review, public meetings, a submission for approval and the funding discussion.

In June, Adrian gave another update: The IJR for the Federal Highway Administration should wrap up in the next 60 days or so, at which point a design for the interchange would be chosen and the clock would start on the public portion of the National Environmental Policy Act review process. Then the DOH would determine if the interchange was a viable project.

Then came the announcement at the end of July that the DOH is going to add a bridge to the Harmony Grove project to tide over the industrial park until the full interchange could be complete. There are two top plans: In the first and most likely choice, the bridge would connect to U.S. 119/Grafton Road in the less than half-mile stretch between Scott Avenue and the Glotfelty Tire Center, at 370 Grafton Road. The connection would intersect Smithtown Road somewhere in the area of the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses (379 Smithtown Road) before crossing the river and connecting directly to Rail Street, which is part of the Morgantown Industrial Park road network. In the second plan, the bridge would be placed in the roughly 1,000-foot stretch between the Morgantown Lock and the BFS station at 305 Don Knotts Blvd. This option would also require a total reconstruction of upper River Road.

The bridge (expected to cost roughly $70 million) is predicted to be complete by the end of 2025, with the original interchange (estimated to cost $41 million) to be completed soon after. The blame for the continued delays on the interchange has been laid at the FHA’s feet.

We give this latest plan of both a bridge and an interchange a thumbs up, because something — at this point, anything — must be done.

Our cities’ roads cannot sustain the current truck traffic, let alone increased usage as Mountaintop Beverage and other businesses at the MIP expand. Those roads were not designed for heavy — both in the sense of weight and frequency — truck traffic, and damaged roads aren’t good for any vehicle, personal or commercial.

Plus, a broken promise to a job-creator doesn’t bode well for future investment. We want companies and manufacturers to see West Virginia as a good venture; but it is not a good look when the state guarantees infrastructure in exchange for settling a business here, only to never deliver its end of the bargain. If we break trust with our current investors, like Mountaintop Beverage, then we won’t be able to build trust with other businesses in the future.

If adding a bridge to the project is what it takes for the state to keep its promise, then so be it. Something is better than nothing. But we have our concerns.

The bridge is supposed to be finished and operational in a little over two years. Considering it’s taken five years just to get through the paperwork related to the interchange, we’re a little skeptical that the entire bridge process can be done in two. Granted, the bridge won’t have to go through quite as many hoops, since it won’t connect directly to the interstate; but there are still hundreds of other possible delays, including material shortages and supply chain issues, that could set the opening date back.

In addition, we’re being assured the bridge is “in addition to” the interchange. However, we find it difficult to 100% trust that the state will finish a bridge that costs nearly twice as much as the initial project and still construct the original Harmony Grove interchange. We hope that proves to be the case, but we’re unlikely to believe it until we see it.