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Tomblin working with National Guard to protect 130th Airlift Wing

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is working with the West Virginia National Guard to consider a bridge over the Elk River into Coonskin Park, in an attempt to protect the future of Charleston's 130th Airlift Wing.

Amy Shuler Goodwin, spokeswoman for the governor, said Tomblin is working with James Hoyer, adjutant general of the state's National Guard, to come up with a plan to get the bridge built.

"This is a $9 million investment," Goodwin said, "but we need to look at what this means for our National Guard's men and women."

In 2005, the base was nearly closed under a federal Base Realignment and Closure program that shut down military bases all over the country. Only a concentrated effort by the National Guard, state and local officials and the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., kept federal officials from shutting the 130th down and transferring its C-130 Hercules cargo planes to other bases.

National Guard officials and other state leaders say they have corrected all of the objections the Department of Defense had about the 130th -- except for a security concern which they believe would be allayed by closing the part of Coonskin Drive that runs right past the National Guard Armory and 130th headquarters.

With another round of BRAC closures expected in 2014, state officials don't want to give the federal government an excuse to try to shut down the 130th again.

Goodwin said a feasibility report on how to fund the bridge is expected within the next week or so. She said Tomblin and Hoyer will go over the report to decide how best to get the new bridge built and the 130th secured.

"We know we have to do it," she said. "The questions are what are our best options for building the project."

State Division of Highways spokesman Brent Walker said the Coonskin Park bridge no longer is on the state's construction schedule because highways officials were waiting for funding from the federal government. However, Walker said, the bridge can be put back on the schedule if alternate funding is found for construction.

Hoyer said the National Guard's armory board might be able to float a bond to pay for the bridge. Hoyer said the payoff on a 20- or 25-year bond should be less than $500,000 a year.

Earlier this week, former state National Guard head Allen Tackett suggested that the city of Charleston, Kanawha County and Yeager Airport could help pay off such a bond. Kanawha County commissioners seemed amenable to the idea. Charleston Mayor Danny Jones was more skeptical.

Hoyer said the base on Coonskin Drive contributes about $89 million to the local economy and employs more than 1,000 people.

Officials for the National Guard want to close Coonskin Drive to the public to control access in and out of the area. However, closing the road would shut off all access to Coonskin Park, which is located next door to the National Guard.

State highways officials held public hearings in 2010 to pick the best route for a new entrance to Coonskin Park. Their preferred option is building a new bridge across the Elk River in the Mink Shoals area to connect with the northern end of Coonskin Park.

Building the bridge won't save the 130th from another round of BRAC closures by itself, Hoyer said, "but the bridge helps us address the last physical infrastructure piece [cited by federal officials in closing the air base]."

State officials were counting on Byrd to secure federal funding for the project, but the senator died before the money could be guaranteed in the federal budget. Hoyer said the National Guard already has bought nine pieces of property across Coonskin Drive from the Army and Air Guard property, and one piece of property across the Elk River for the proposed bridge.

The original cost estimate for the new bridge was $15 million, but Hoyer said that price included property acquisition and a new gate at the bottom of Coonskin Drive. Hoyer said the new gate has been included in the federal budget.

"We believe the bridge itself is going to cost between $7 million and $9 million," Hoyer said.

Reach Rusty Marks at rustymarks@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1215.


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