On Oct. 20, 2000, the state Department of Transportation broke ground on the 90-mile-long, four-lane King Coal Highway to connect Williamson to Bluefield.
The project is a public-private partnership, with surface mining companies helping to prepare the roadbed and the Division of Highways doing the paving. The highway is to run through McDowell, Mercer, Mingo, Wyoming and Wayne counties as part of the Interstate 73-74 corridor.
On June 27, 2012, the Williamson Daily News reported that the partnership reduced the cost of the highway, estimated at $198.8 million, to $88 million.
But this week, Kanawha Circuit Judge Jim Stucky ruled against the state Department of Transportation in an eight-year-old suit over construction of the road in one area.
The Affiliated Construction Trades Foundation contended that the Division of Highways illegally gave a no-bid contract to a firm for a 14-mile stretch near Red Jacket in Mingo County.
"The competitive bidding and prevailing wage statutes have been enacted in an attempt to protect against the expenditure of the public's funds in a manner that violates the public policy of the state or in a manner that benefits certain parties rather than the public," Stucky wrote.
"It has long been the policy and the law of the state that the expenditure of public funds is not for the benefit of contractors but to protect employees from substandard wages."
"The reality is, the job is done, or almost done," said Steve White, executive director of the trades foundation, "but we don't want to see any more of these contracts done. This should prevent further bad deals like this one."
It's hard to tell exactly what went wrong here. If the state Division of Highways broke state law, it broke state law.
But certainly, saving the public more than $100 million is not a bad deal. It's a good deal, and such a finding should prompt some questions.
If state law is written in a way that makes such savings illegal, the Legislature should change it.
It would benefit and protect the public, and it would make discussions of other highway needs go more smoothly.