Post-pandemic, where does the proposed Southern Virginia road stand?

MARTINSVILLE – If you’ve driven through Martinsville in the last three years, chances are you’ve heard of the Martinsville Southern Connector Road.

No, it’s not one you’ve driven on and your GPS didn’t recalculate to accommodate. It currently doesn’t exist. Approximately three years after a comprehensive study of the area began, the project remains in the Preliminary Engineering phase, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation.

The overall goal is to look at traffic problems on U.S. 220 South and determine the best way to fix them. Maybe you just widen the road, adding an extra lane on both sides. Maybe you invest the money to bring it up to interstate quality, so that more vehicles can pass through. VDOT officials are still trying to find the right answer to the question.

The Martinsville Connector Study was the first step in that process. It focused on a potential limited access road on a new location and considered potential new improvements to Route 220.

Martinsville Connector Draft Released

A year ago this month, VDOT released the study they conducted in the Martinsville area.

The Draft Environmental Impact Statement, initiated by both VDOT and the Federal Highway Administration, revealed findings from the Feb. 2018 area study. The National Environmental Policy Act requires such studies.

In order to build the road, the study found that 25 homes and industries might have to be relocated. According to Angel Aymond, location studies project manager with VDOT’s Environmental Division, the Commonwealth Transportation Board requested an additional evaluation of the potential relocations. Basically, they want to know the overall impact.

“The illustrative planning-level [limits of disturbance] that is utilized in the study allows VDOT to analyze a worst-case scenario from an impacts perspective,” Aymond said. “It is possible that potential impacts, including relocations may be further reduced if [or] when the project advances to detailed design.”

You can translate that to mean VDOT is trying to find a way to build the Connector while relocating as few people as possible.

Considering the Creek

But people aren’t the only problem, when it comes to building the Connector. The draft also said if the road is built, it’s likely the first 4.5 miles of Marrowbone Creek won’t meet Virginia’s water quality standard for recreational use. What does that have to do with the road? Marrowbone wouldn’t meet the standards due to high levels of bacteria, caused by pollution runoff from the new construction.

How do you fix that? You put several temporary and permanent stormwater management measures in place. But those aren’t cheap. And every time VDOT runs across a red flag like this, it adds to the overall cost.

“VDOT implements numerous engineering and science-based solutions to avoid and compensate for impacts to wetlands and streams. We support the continued survival of endangered species by creating habitat and reducing construction related impacts to flora and fauna,” Aymond said. “If the project advances to construction, VDOT [or] a design-builder would be required to adhere to Road and Bridge Specifications, which include measures for stormwater management to minimize pollutant runoff, as well as Virginia’s State Water Control law and implementing Stormwater Management Program regulations.”

Final Draft in Question

So with all that said, when will a decision be made on the project? That’s coming later this year. However, approval is up to VDOT leadership and the CTB. They may or mat not approve the final version.

Prior to the Record of Decision (ROD), which concludes the NEPA process, VDOT must demonstrate fiscal constraint. That means VDOT needs to first designate funds for the next phase of preliminary engineering development.

If VDOT does not identify funding, they will not request an ROD from FHWA and will not sign off on the project moving forward.

To move forward with the project, the road will require additional revenue sources other than solely VDOT dollars.

That’s because the preliminary cost estimate is approximately $745 million. In comparison to the state’s transportation budget, the last two-year SMART SCALE funding cycle allocated just over $869 million. That’s for all transportation projects statewide.

“Currently, there is no funding identified to advance the preferred alternative to detailed design or construction,” Aymond said.

Aymond further noted that there is currently no schedule or funding timetable for a project advancing as a result of the Martinsville Southern Connector Study.

A Local Perspective

Tim Hall, Henry County Administrator, expressed hope for the project.

“It was an arduous journey to get through [to the] Commonwealth Transportation Board and get its attention for this project. At the end of the day, CTB approved it unanimously and told us that we needed to work on getting some funding, some revenue streams to help with the cost,” Hall said. “The cost is a huge amount of money.”

The county intends to explore options such as getting the Martinsville Connector Road included in the state budget. Hall also expressed interest in exploring funding routes. If the county presents a potential source of revenue, the project stands a chance at moving forward.

“It’s an uphill climb. And we knew that from the first moment we stepped in front of the CTB. But we will continue to work on that until we’re told to stop, and we haven’t been told that yet,” Hall said. “So work’s still ongoing to try to hit all of the benchmarks and check all of the boxes that we need to check.”

Meanwhile, county officials will continue talking with personnel at the state and federal levels about the Martinsville Connector Road.

“And at the end of the day if we’re told there’s no money for it, then that hurts our area. But certainly we’re not in a position to say, ‘Hey, wait a minute. Rethink it,'” Hall said. “But you know, right now, the game is still being played and we’re still playing it. And hopefully there’ll be some positive outcome. And if there’s not, we’ll just remount and reload and do the best that we can.”

Amie Knowles reports for Dogwood. You can reach her at amie@couriernewsroom.com