In a shrinking part of Southside Virginia, VDOT is still planning a highway expansion

In a shrinking part of Southside Virginia, VDOT is still planning a highway expansion
Highway 58 near Martinsville, Virginia (Source: Virginia Department of Transportation)

Highway expansion is often pitched as necessary to combat congestion for a growing population. For opponents, that makes the Virginia Department of Transportation’s planned Martinsville Southern Connector — a $745 million, 7.4-mile highway expansion in a shrinking corner of the state — all the more perplexing.

“This project goes against everything this administration, the Commonwealth Transportation Board and VDOT say they’re doing,” said Trip Pollard, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “This is very much an old school VDOT approach: barrel ahead with a project that’s not needed, extremely destructive and very costly and then justify it later. It’s all the worst parts of transportation planning wrapped up into one project.”

Local officials, however, see the project as a way to address traffic and safety issues, spur some economic growth and stave off population loss.

“If we want to correct the negative trend, then we have to do something different to improve that,” said Dale Wagoner, deputy county administrator for Henry County.

‘Politics and bureaucratic inertia’

Some of the frustration surrounding the Martinsville Southern Connector results from its confluence with a larger and even more expensive project that regional watchdogs and environmental advocates have fought going back nearly two decades: an extension of Interstate 73. That multi-billion dollar proposal to build a highway from the North Carolina border roughly 70 miles up to Interstate 81 via Roanoke passed a Federal Highway Administration environmental impact assessment twice — once in 2006 and again in 2012 after a realignment.

Due to a lack of funding and alarm bells from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that the I-73 extension would damage local streams, the project was put on hold. Although the I-73 and Martinsville Southern Connector proposals have never been formally linked, the similar alignments and VDOT’s use of $4.6 million of previously-designated I-73 funding to pay for a study on improvements to the southern portion of the corridor have left local critics and environmentalists alike suspicious.

In the absence of an official VDOT repudiation of the proposal, fears of its imminent revival still linger. The fact that the Martinsville Southern Connector is being pushed by local municipal leaders and hasn’t gone through SMART SCALE — Virginia’s award-winning, needs-based transportation funding process — has also caused concern. “The money for the study came from an earmark,” said Pollard. “This project is being pursued for politics and bureaucratic inertia and not based on if it makes sense for our transportation needs.”

The final environmental impact statement for the connector is expected later this year, but with an estimated price tag of $745 million, even a successful pass through SMART SCALE wouldn’t be enough to pay for the project. The last two-year SMART SCALE funding cycle allocated just over $869 million for all transportation projects statewide.

‘We see a need’

VDOT says “numerous, uncontrolled access configurations along Route 220, combined with high through traffic movement, create traffic delays and contribute to high crash rates” along the road, which is not only a main North-South thoroughfare but also “main street” for many locals, including school children and faculty, businesses and residents. Opponents of the connector say VDOT itself has identified less expensive ways to address problems on the road, however.

The question of how to pay for the Martinsville Southern Connector is one best answered by state officials, according to Wagoner. “That’s what we have the CTB for: to make those tough decisions of where the money needs to go,” he said. “There’s very little money coming to our region and Henry County through SMART SCALE — not that we’re complaining about that. We see a need, VDOT sees a need, so we’ll leave it up to the General Assembly or the CTB to come up with funding for the road.”

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.