The clock is ticking for Henry County officials, as they'll have to soon make a decision about continued support for Interstate 73.
Jim Adams, chairman of the Henry County Board of Supervisors, said the board will examine their options within the next few months.
Economic developers believe an interstate should help attract companies to the area. The four-lane, divided highways lack driveway connections that can slow traffic. That makes it easier for large trucks that deliver raw materials and ship finished products to get to their destinations faster.
So far, the federal government has allocated about $8.5 million for I-73’s stretch through the county. That is not nearly enough to design, acquire rights of way and then build the highway, said Jason Bond, communications manager for the Salem District office of the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT).
Lisa Price Hughes, resident administrator at VDOT’s local office in Bassett Forks, made a similar comment.
"It’s a $4 billion project," Bond said. He predicted that due to economic constraints at the state and federal levels, "that kind of funding is going to be hard to get anytime soon."
No state funds have been allocated so far.
The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2016, signed into law by President Barack Obama in December, allows a state to repurpose earmarks for transportation projects for other projects – either new or existing - within the state and 50 miles of the original project, according to Bond. But there is a catch. For an earmark to be repurposed, that new project has to be proposed before Sept. 30, when the new fiscal year starts for the federal government.
County officials have discussed, at the least, trying to get a new highway built to connect the Patriot Centre at Beaver Creek Industrial Park with U.S. 58 east of Martinsville in the Laurel Park area.
Bond said he doubts that $8.5 million is enough to design and build the connector route. But it would be a start.
To pursue repurposing the earmarked funds, the county would have to make a request to the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB), Bond said.
There is no guarantee that the repurposing would be approved, he said.
The $8.5 million would be exempt from scoring under a new state system being used to determine transportation projects that are funded, but any future allocations may have to be scored, he added.
Ultimately, though, "the county must make a decision as to whether it wants to continue advocating for I-73," Bond said.
If a decision is made to continue advocating for it, the interstate project in Henry County will have to score high enough to earn a place on the CTB’s Six-Year Six Year Improvement Plan, he said.
State House Bill 2, which Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed into law in 2014, directed the CTB to develop and start using by July of this year an objective scoring process for deciding which highway projects can be funded. Factors that are to be taken into account include economic development, environmental and safety issues and if a road would improve people’s access to jobs and ease traffic congestion, the state website www.virginiahb2.org shows.
To have I-73 considered for scoring, an application must be submitted online between Aug. 1 and Sept. 30. After the latter date, evaluation teams will work through December to screen and score projects. They will then provide those scores to the CTB in January, the website shows.
An application can be submitted either by the county or the West Piedmont Planning District Commission, the website indicates.
If a project makes it onto the six year plan, it will receive funding, Bond said, although the federal earmarks already provided may be lost.
Yet even if a project scores high enough, "the CTB decides what projects it wants to fund," he said. The board could decide to fund a lower-scoring project instead of a higher-scoring one if it believes – despite the evaluation – that the lower-scoring one would be more beneficial than the higher-scoring one, he indicated.
Funding decisions ultimately are based on board members’ opinions, he said.
"I-73, as always, remains in the hands of the Commonwealth Transportation Board," Bond emphasized. "Until the … board decides it will be a funding priority, it will remain unfunded and not be built."
Adams, the Blackberry District representative on the Board of Supervisors, said getting I-73 built remains a high priority of the county. Referring to getting the project scored, he said "if that’s what the county needs to do, that’s what we will do."
Nevertheless, the board will need to discuss the county’s options for pursuing construction of a new highway "within the next couple of (monthly) board meetings," Adams said.
"We need to look at any viable project and not lock ourselves into any single proposal," he said. "We need to look at what’s in the best interests of all citizens."