WINFIELD, W.Va. -- Construction to complete U.S. 35 in Mason and Putnam counties could begin as soon as April, Putnam County Commissioner Andy Skidmore announced during a Tuesday morning meeting.
However, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin released a statement later Tuesday saying Skidmore's comments may be "premature."
Last month, Putnam County Manager Brian Donat told commissioners about the chance of completing the final four-lane portion of U.S. 35 by taking advantage of new provisions contained in Senate Bill 190.
The Legislature passed the bill earlier this year. It changed the restrictions on public-private partnerships in such a way that the construction could be privately financed using state highway funds.
Skidmore indicated Thursday the project to complete the final 14.6mile stretch or highway might finally have been given the green light.
"We had a transportation meeting on Monday, Nov. 18, and added a new project to our transportation projects report: finishing U.S. route 35 - without tolls," Skidmore said. "There's been additional funding found through Senate Bill 190," Skidmore said. "That's also called P3, public-private partnership program, where a contractor and a finance company will finance the project and the state will make payments."
The state still takes on debt, as it would through a bond sale, but it assumes less risk by using private financing.
"They've found a way to get it done without tolls," Skidmore said.
Skidmore told the commission that the department of highways plans to begin work in April.
However, after news of Skidmore's comments began circulating Thursday afternoon, Tomblin issued a statement indicating the project was not as far along has Skidmore had made it seem.
Tomblin said the state Division of Highways, "is still exploring ways to fully implement (Senate Bill 190)." He said the bill's applicability to projects like U.S. 35, "remains to be seen."
"WVDOH has retained outside counsel to help us with this endeavor and statements to the contrary are simply premature," Tomblin said.
At Thursday's commission meeting, Skidmore indicated there were still additional steps that needed to be taken before construction could begin. That includes signing a private partner onto the project.
According to the Division of Highways' Transportation Renovation and Improvement Report for Putnam County, the bidding process for the project would begin at the end of January with a target start date of April 28, 2014.
On that timeline, work would be completed by April 2016.
But that timeline, along with projected cost of $214 million, are only estimates until a contractor and financial company sign on.
"That's our TRIP report," Department of Transportation spokesman Brent Walker said. "A lot of that is for planning purposes. That's every project that's been programmed. I don't blame Commissioner Skidmore for interpreting it that way."
He said the dates listed on the report are internal working numbers.
"There is so much more of a process before we could even give a date. There is still some due diligence that has to be done," Walker said. "So those dates are sometimes just internal dates for us to reassess."
U.S. 35 is a heavily traveled trucking route that was once notorious for deadly head-on collisions. A new four-lane freeway now begins at the interchange with Interstate 64 near Scott Depot and continues to Buffalo.
The four-lane picks up again just outside of Point Pleasant, but the stretch between there and Buffalo remains unimproved and treacherous.