RICHMOND - While transportation funding will be a major issue with the current session of the Virginia General Assembly, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling said Thursday he sees the proposed Coalfields Expressway as a very important project for the region and that he will keep looking for ways to advance it.
The Virginia Department of Transportation announced Wednesday that it and private-sector partners Pioneer Group Inc. and Alpha Natural Resources LLC have agreed to perform a limited feasibility study for the project, which would stretch 51 miles from Pound in Wise County, through Dickenson and Buchanan counties to the West Virginia line.
The companies will evaluate possible highway alignments that take into account areas of marketable coal reserves they control. The techniques used to recover this coal could significantly lower the cost of building the four-lane highway.
The study is expected to be completed later this summer.
During a Thursday teleconference with reporters across the state, Bolling told the Times-News that he believes the project to be a very important one that could open the coalfields to economic opportunity.
"I think we need to keep moving forward with this opportunity the coal companies have given us and we need to keep looking for ways to help advance it," he said, adding that the new highway could open Southwest Virginia to more economic development, which is one of his key issues for the year.
Bolling said he believes a consensus on transportation funding will emerge from the General Assembly in the next few days, if not sooner, and that could possibly benefit the planned highway project.
In discussing economic development issues, Bolling said the state needs to find ways to bring business, industry and new jobs to the state - especially the rural areas such as the Southwest and Southside. He is pleased, he said, that Gov. Tim Kaine has agreed to budget an additional $5 million to his opportunity fund, and even more pleased that legislation is being entered that would lower the threshold that triggers release of those funds.
"Those two things combined will give more incentives and access to the funds to bring jobs to Virginia," he said.
The lieutenant governor said other items on his legislative agenda this year include public safety and health care.
He has bills being carried through by various legislators that would crack down on gang-related activity and the manufacture, possession and selling of methamphetamine, which he said is increasingly becoming related to gangs who cook and sell the drug for income. Bolling wants to see the penalty for meth equal to that for cocaine.
Addressing health care, Bolling said he wants to make it easier for small businesses to provide health insurance for employees so those employees don't end up having the state pay for their care. Other bills address childhood obesity, providing funding for early detection of cervical cancer, and helping recruit doctors to rural areas.
Bolling said he developed his agenda based on what he heard from constituents during trips last year all around the state.
"I wanted to deal with issues that are of concern in the areas I visited," he said.
Other items on his agenda include tax reform, education, the environment, natural resources and illegal immigration.