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Martinsville Bulletin, Inc.
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Martinsville, Virginia 24115
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U.S. 58: 24-year fight for funds
Project may be part of road talks
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Wednesday, January 9, 2013

By DEBBIE HALL - Bulletin Staff Writer

Twenty-four years ago, the General Assembly approved the U.S. 58 Corridor Development Program to widen and straighten the 680-mile highway that runs from Virginia’s eastern coast to its western mountains.

Today, more than 300 miles of the highway await improvements.

“It has been on our Six-Year Transportation Plan and our Legislative Agenda forever,” Henry County Administrator Tim Hall said. “I would say it’s been on both for five or six years, probably longer.”

Transportation needs statewide have far outpaced available funds for several years, and efforts to find solutions have failed. However, Gov. Bob McDonnell introduced a transportation funding proposal on Tuesday, and both state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Glade Hill, and Del. Charles Poindexter, R-Glade Hill, said they anticipate much discussion of that and related issues when the General Assembly convenes today.

Also, Poindexter’s legislative director Alex Thorup said Tuesday that the delegate’s staff was working on a U.S. 58 funding bill that may be released to the public today. He said it is complicated but would make it easier to get funding and allow for more funding for all the remaining projects on U.S. 58.

Hall said any such bill will have a tough road in the legislature.

“Anything that requires substantial funding is going to find a difficult path,” whether it is for roads, education or another expense, Hall said, and noted that the most expensive parts of the highway project — through the mountains — may have been left until the end.

The improvement project however, is “very important and will continue to be important until” it is completed, because companies locating to the area must be able to move their products to market, and a four-lane corridor to Interstate 77 and other points west would help lure companies to locate here, he said.

According to Hall and online information, interstates 64, 77, 81, 85 and 95 run through various areas of the state.

Henry County, however, is not among those areas.

“We have a lot of advantages here, but one thing we don’t have are transportation corridors,” Hall said. “If you look at a map of the commonwealth, there is a chasm in the middle” where there is no major highway, Hall said.

Anecdotally, Hall said he has not heard any company say they located in another area due to a lack of local transportation opportunities.

But he speculates that because companies do such intense research, “they may eliminate you before they even talk to you,” Hall said. “They may eliminate you right out of the gate.”

The General Assembly approved the U.S. 58 Corridor Development Program in 1989 to enhance economic development from Virginia’s eastern coast to its western mountains, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) website.

Jason Bond, spokesman for the Salem District of VDOT, said the bill called for special bond sales to pay for the project.

“That was kind of a unique funding source for a transportation project,” he said. “The money didn’t all come in a lump sum,” and bonds were reissued “at different points.”

Before work on road projects begins, Bond said location and environmental studies are required. Survey work also must be completed, and then a designer is hired to “start drawing up the road itself.”

A public hearing then is held where plans are shown to the public and input is sought, Bond said. The public hearing for the U.S. 58 improvement project was held in August 1998.

Once that process is complete, the plans, design information and other data are forwarded to the Commonwealth Transportation Board, Bond said.

As funding becomes available, property purchases for the road and rights-of-way can begin, he said. In the case of U.S. 58, “a vast majority of the right-of-way purchases have been completed” for the entire project.

About 240 miles of the nearly 680-mile road were four lanes before the improvement project began, according to Bond and the website.

Since then, millions of dollars have been spent on improvements, including adding four or more lanes to an additional 130 miles for a current total of about 370 with four or more lanes, according to Bond and the website.

Completed portions include a 5-mile section between Spencer and Martinsville that opened in 1996, Bond said.

There were then six projects on portions of the highway between Spencer and Stuart that were completed between 1999 and 2001, Bond said. He added that there were “some delays with those projects,” essentially because one of the two contractors hired by VDOT defaulted.

By October 2002, state officials estimated that approximately $840 million had been spent on improving 130 miles of the road, Bond said.

But the project’s funding basically fell apart two months later.

At that time, VDOT’s six-year plan — basically a spending plan for a six-year window — included $485 million for U.S. 58 projects, Bond said.

A subsequent review of finances showed a funding shortfall, and state officials found that only $213 million was available for the project, he said. “Basically they had over-committed.”

The shortfall was announced in December 2002, and that’s when “the bottom sort of fell out of funding,” Bond said. Work underway at the time was to be completed, but new construction and right-of-way acquisition in the corridor was suspended, according to Bulletin accounts at the time.

“It finally dried up” and legislators “never came back with an additional” funding stream until years later when the General Assembly began earmarking funds for different parts of the improvement project, Bond said.

Since then, some parts have been completed and others are underway, according to Bond and online information.

In 2003, VDOT and Branch Highways Inc. entered an agreement under the Public-Private Transportation Act of 1995, according to Bond.

That company has since completed the Meadows of Dan/Hillsville Bypass and is working on 8 miles of road between Meadows of Dan and Laurel Fork in a pair of projects, Bond said of a 3.2-mile portion known as the Tri-County portion and 5 miles in Laurel Fork. The two projects are expected to be completed by the fall of 2015, according to the website.

Other projects awaiting funding include 7.8 miles from Stuart to Vesta (Lover’s Leap), according to the website and other information from VDOT. That portion’s price tag is $206 million. Other active projects include 4 miles in Vesta, at a cost of $113 million; 1.7 miles of Virginia 669 for $10 million; and 7.2 miles of Crooked Oak, for $151 million.

 

 
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