WSAZ Investigates | Jefferson Road project put on hold more than 9 months

Published: Aug. 4, 2020 at 6:07 PM EDT
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SOUTH CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) - A major project designed to eliminate traffic backup on a busy road in Kanawha County has now sat at a standstill for nearly nine months.

It’s a plan that has been talked about for decades. But in 2019, it was finalized that Jefferson Road in South Charleston would be getting a major makeover -- expanding the two-lane road to five lanes and adding an overpass and roundabout. If you have ever been in that area, you know how bad that backup can be.

Gov. Jim Justice announced in April 2019 construction would soon get on the fast track – but after several bumps in the road, many are now calling the completion date of December 2022 into question.

West Virginia Department of Highways (WVDOH) says Kokosing Construction Company was awarded the bid for the project on April 17, 2019, and was able to begin work on May 2, 2019. Before construction could begin, the company had to remove asbestos from certain homes between MacCorkle Avenue and the Kanawha Turnpike. That work started on June 24, 2019, and wrapped up on Sept. 16, 2019. Building demolition also started on June 24, 2019, but soon came to a screeching halt.

Neighbors who live in the subdivision affected by the project say that’s when their nightmare began.

Rosemarie Hunter is one of those neighbors. She has lived in Jefferson Park for the last 15 years.

“As a resident of Jefferson Park, that the residents have not been taken into consideration and we’ve had so many inconveniences and actual threats imposed upon us because of the way the project has not been managed properly,” Hunter said.

She wants to know why the work has stopped and has concerns about drainage and asbestos, as well as property value. So, WSAZ started doing some digging.

We reached out to the DOH. District 1 Engineer Travis Knighton tells WSAZ the project has not been touched in months due to permitting issues.

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) is the agency that gives permits to contracting companies.

DEP Acting Communications Director Terry Fletcher said Kokosing started the project without the appropriate permit coverage. Fletcher says because of this, the DEP issued Kokosing a cease and desist order on Oct. 29, 2019, for operating without proper permit coverage.

However, Knighton said DEP did allow Kokosing a temporary permit, only to finish filling the open holes in the ground that posed a danger.

Fletcher says Kokosing re-submitted a permit application on Nov. 27, 2019. According to Fletcher, that application was not returned to Kokosing until more than six months later on June 4. WSAZ asked why it took that long to review the permit application. The response we received reads in part:

“Permit applications are typically reviewed in the order they are received and the WVDEP had to complete other permit reviews before starting on the permit for the Jefferson Road project. Additionally, this is a very large project, which required adding more time to the review process.”

DEP gave Kokosing 30 days on June 4, 2020, to resubmit their application but say they have yet to receive it. Kokosing will not be allowed to work on the project until the proper permits are reviewed and approved by the DEP.

Neighbors in the subdivision told WSAZ they have only seen crews from the city of South Charleston come out to do some upkeep in the area, even though the property is not the city’s responsibility.

WSAZ asked WVDOH who is responsible for property maintenance. The DOH says that falls on Kokosing Construction -- and a permit is not needed for general upkeep and maintenance.

“They’re not cutting the grass, they’re not maintaining the sediment control, which causes some drainage problems in the neighborhood, and those are the frustrations we have to deal with every day because, those are our folks. Yeah, it’s not our project, but we want to try to take care of our neighborhood if we can,” Mayor Frank Mullens said.

Neighbors also told WSAZ piles of debris on the land have been there for months.

“Where there’s 6-foot-tall grass, where there is a 25-foot debris pile, would you want your kids playing in that subdivision? Because there are little kids here,” Hunter said.

Mark Huffman is a lifelong resident of Jefferson Park. He says he cuts the grass in the empty lot behind his house because, otherwise, he is unsure if it’ll get done.

“It is frustrating because when you grew up here, there’s a lot of people that lived here a lot of years. It’s really messy and trashy looking here now because of the grass, the brush piles, still some houses left (too).”

Kokosing declined comment to WSAZ and referred us to WVDOH for all questions regarding the Jefferson Road Project.

DOH says there are still four more structures that need to be removed from Phase I of the project which runs from U.S. 60 to the railroad tracks. They say the exact amount of structures to be removed during Phase II has not been determined.

Julie Campbell, another resident of Jefferson Park, says, “I think this whole circumstance has ruined our neighborhood. They told us they were supposed to start very quickly, and we’ve been sitting here for months and months and months with nothing happening. Our neighborhood looks bad.”

WSAZ asked the DOH if the project is still on track to be finished by 2022.

“The contract completion date is not until 12/28/22. The house demo is an extremely small portion of the project, which is being handled by a subcontractor, it would not be feasible to go with another contractor. I would expect work to begin again late fall,” said Jimmy Wriston, Deputy Secretary of Transportation.

Larry Johnson moved into the Jefferson Park neighborhood about a year before construction started. He says one of his biggest issues is that the residents are not being given any updates on the project. “I was told that this had been something that had been talked about for years and that it probably would not happen, so I wasn’t concerned until I found out that this time was in fact the time that they were going to tear down half the neighborhood.”

Every resident in Jefferson Park we spoke with said they would love to just have their home bought out.

“We’re all just kind of sitting here and we can’t sell our homes, even if you wanted to sell them, you can’t get any money out of them. That’s proven from all the neighbors who sold, they took 20-30,000 dollars less on their homes,” Campbell said.

WSAZ asked Mayor Frank Mullens about the possibility of the city buying some of those homes.

“As far as anyone wanting bought out, I’m not saying that couldn’t be done in the future I don’t think it will be a highways issue I think that will be more of a city of South Charleston and them together. We’ve talked about that as a staff because, we know a lot of folks want to go elsewhere because of the construction and things.”

Mullens said if the city were to ever buy out the Jefferson Park residents, it would be a mutual agreement between both parties.

WSAZ sent a list of questions to Kokosing Construction Company, which were referred to Gary Mullins with WVDOH. Mullins said as soon as Kokosing finishes the design portion of the project plan, they will resubmit their permits. He said the current plan is to have the permit resubmitted by Labor Day.

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