The Virginia Dept. of Transportation finally has found a new team to build the planned $2.3-billion, 51- mile Coalfield Expressway in the state’s southwest corner, seven months after federal funding was pulled when work did not progress fast enough under previous design-build partner, Kellogg, Brown and Root.

VDOT announced Jan. 19 that it has entered into a Comprehensive Development Agreement with a joint venture between two Virginia-based coal companies to build the highway. KBR was named in 2002 to build the road, but the project lost the special financial backing of the Federal Highway Administration last June because of the delays. In a June 2, 2005, letter to VDOT, FHWA Division Administrator Roberto Fonseca-Martinez noted that the highway would not meet its promised completion date of 2012.

VDOT opted to bring in the coal companies, mirroring an approach used to construct West Virgina’s King Coal Highway. That road was built using rough grade roads built by coal companies for coal extraction. VDOT signed the agreement with Pioneer Group, Bristol, and Alpha Natural Resources, Abingdon.

“The coal companies are doing engineering work right now to identify the location of the coal,” says Mal Kerley, VDOT chief engineer. That process could take up to a year, allowing VDOT time to negotiate an agreement with the Pioneer-Alpha team and clear up federal funding issues, says Kerley. The use of rough grade roads built by the coal firms will create significant savings of up to 25% on the project, he adds.

Negotiations also will include contributions to project financing by Pioneer-Alpha and reimbursements to the team. If VDOT and the joint venture cannot come to terms in a year, the agreement will be dissolved. “It is a risk for them. They are not roadbuilders,” says Kerley. “But our counterparts in West Virginia believe this is a very good way to move the project forward.”

KBR still maintains first right of refusal for any construction work needed outside of the coal firms’ purview, according to agreement.