A Region Connected

Serving Buchanan, Dickenson, Russell, and Tazewell Counties in Virginia
Cumberland Plateau Planning District Commission
Serving Buchanan, Dickenson, Russell, and Tazewell Counties in Virginia
Cumberland Plateau Planning District Commission

CFX - The Key to Economic Development in Virginia's Coalfields

The coal counties of extreme Southwest Virginia - Buchanan, Dickenson, and Wise are in the midst of a transition from a coal-based economy to one of diversity and progress. While the people of the area look to the future with optimism and hope, the counties continue to struggle with one major problem – isolation. However, there is a planned highway project that will serve as a lifeline in opening up the region – The Coalfields Expressway (CFX).

The Coalfields Expressway will extend from Interstates 64/77 in Beckley, West Virginia to U.S. Route 23 in Pound, Virginia, and serve as a critical component to the long-term economic health of the perennially impoverished coal counties of Southwest Virginia. When completed, this highway will serve as a catalyst to improve economic development in the region by providing (and expanding) job opportunities and industry; by increasing the tourism trade in one of the most beautiful and rugged areas of the commonwealth; and improving local and regional access to higher education.

To comprehend the importance of economic growth for the Coalfields region, it is imperative to understand the economic disparity between the region and the rest of the commonwealth. The coal counties consistently rate near or at the bottom of the state in the most important of economic statistics, such as unemployment, income, poverty, and population growth (or loss).

Unemployment. Perhaps the simplest, and most telling, statistic indicative of the economic health of an area is the unemployment rate. Between 1982 and the 1990's  the unemployment rate of the three aforementioned counties rarely dipped below double digits while the statewide average has hovered at or below five percent for more than a decade. Since then, the coalfield counties have been near the top of unemployment rates in Virginia.

Income. Another telling indication of the discrepancy in economic health between the Coalfields region and the rest of the state is the per capita personal income. None of the three coal counties have surpassed the $20,000 per capita income barrier while the commonwealth is now over $32,000.

Poverty. Poverty statistics provided by the United States Census Bureau - American Community Survey 2007 - 2011 show that , the percentage of people in Virginia estimated to be living beneath the federally mandated poverty level was 10.7%. However, 21.6% of the people in Wise County and 21.32% of the population in Dickenson County are estimated to live below the poverty level. Further, in Buchanan  County, 24.0 is estimated to subsist under poverty conditions.

Population. Finally, and perhaps most vital to the long-term health of the coal counties of Southwest Virginia, is the resident population. Since 2000, the population in Virginia has risen by just over 13% while in that same time frame, the combined population of Buchanan, Dickenson, and Wise Counties has dropped by nearly 2.3%. A significant portion of this loss is attributable to the outward migration of young people, who upon completing their education, are forced to relocate to areas offering more employment opportunities. This trend must be reversed and the accessibility offered by the Coalfields Expressway will play a big part in this important turnaround.

Numerous studies have been conducted on the economic impact of highway construction in rural areas, but none are more impressive (or strike closer to the heart of Southwest Virginians) than that of Andrew Isserman, director of the Regional Research Institute at West Virginia University. Mr. Isserman's research demonstrated that interstate highways promote growth in even the most rural of counties. This study of 280 rural, isolated counties (defined as having 5,000-25,000 residents and more than 10 miles from a city of 25,000 and more than 60 miles from a city of 100,000) was, perhaps, even more telling. These definitively rural counties located on the interstate system grew:

62% faster in income
57% faster in earnings
16% faster in the growth of private sector jobs, and
13% faster in population

Withstanding adequate access, the lack of developable land for industry and business development is the chief economic problem in the mountains of Central Appalachia. This is particularly true in the coalfields of Buchanan, Dickenson, and Wise Counties where 70% of the land is above a 20 percent slope and 90% is above a 12 percent slope.

However, there is a unique opportunity for significant economic development in these counties with the plan to build the Coalfields Expressway along the region's ridge tops. Preliminary construction plans indicate that as many as 500 acres of new developable land will be created by the Expressway. With 500 acres of new developable land, the three counties could realize as many as 4,000 to 6,000 new jobs from the successful marketing of these new sites. With a standard accepted multiplier of 1.7 for indirect jobs, a total of 6,800 to 10,200 new jobs are foreseeable for the coal counties of Southwest Virginia. Amid the continual decline in coal industry employment, an opportunity to attract this many jobs is a critical component calling out for support of the Coalfields Expressway.

All of this can come about with statewide support of one important highway project. The Coalfields Expressway ... an opportunity to invest in Southwest Virginia's 21st Century.