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WATCH NOW: U.S. 220 Southern Connector project returns for further review
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WATCH NOW: U.S. 220 Southern Connector project returns for further review

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After a 5-month delay because of COVID-19, residents will have a chance to ask questions and share feedback in person tonight at a public hearing on the potential environmental impacts of the Martinsville Southern Connector project.

The Virginia Department of Transportation originally scheduled the hearing for March 26 but postponed it to Sept. 1 when Virginia declared a state of emergency during the pandemic. The deadline for public comments also has been extended.

Community members now have until Sept. 11 to submit comments on the draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Martinsville Southern Connector, a proposed 4-lane roadway that would run approximately 7.4 miles from the North Carolina line north to the U.S. 220/U.S. 58 bypass.

The public hearing will be an open house format, with VDOT representatives on hand from 3 to 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Jack Dalton Park picnic shelter in Collinsville. However, because of continued risk of the coronavirus, VDOT is encouraging people to view the draft EIS and meeting materials at www.virginiadot.org/martinsvilleconnector and instead provide comments through the website, email, text message or postal mail.

For those who do attend in person, only 50 total people will be allowed in the space at one time. VDOT is advising the public to wear face coverings and will have disposable masks available for attendees who do not have their own, spokesperson Emily Wade said.

Three sanitizing stations will be in place at the hearing, and all surfaces will be sanitized every 30 minutes. In addition, individual pens and information packets will be provided to reduce potential contact points between people.

The long road to a new highway

The draft environmental report on the VDOT project website totals 474 pages, examining in detail the effect on waterways, air quality, hazardous materials, noise, residential relocations, archaeological sites and more.

It represents more than two years of study and public feedback since VDOT began looking at how to improve traffic flow and safety along Route 220 south of Martinsville.

The Martinsville Southern Connector route being proposed, known as Alternative C, was recommended by VDOT as the “least environmentally damaging practicable alternative” out of three possible paths in the study. The U.S. Corps of Engineers and Environmental Protection Agency concurred.

According to VDOT figures, Alternative C would affect an estimated 21,882 linear feet of streams, 3.7 acres of wetlands, and 298 acres of farmland, as well as requiring up to 25 homes and three industrial sites to be relocated. At $616 million, the estimated project costs are lower than Alternatives A and B, which VDOT puts at $757 million and $746 million, respectively.

In September, Henry County officials asked for part of the route to be shifted west in response to concerns from residents in the affected area. When the Commonwealth Transportation Board approved Alternative C in January, the agency directed VDOT to explore whether the route could be modified to reduce the impact on nearby properties.

The modified route reduces the number of potential home relocations from 25 to 21 without increasing the impact to wetlands and streams, Wade said. However, it could increase project costs from the original $616 million to $705.7 million, she added, while the estimated amount of forest clearing has been updated from 224 to 318 acres.

Wade explained the study’s estimates are a “worst-case scenario.”

“Efforts to further minimize impacts to resources may occur if/when project funding is identified,” she wrote in an email. “The cost estimate will be detailed in the final EIS. If/when the project advances, cost estimates will be further refined.”

After the final environmental statement is released in December, VDOT will seek permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and Virginia Marine Resources Commission.

Comments for and against

Since the draft EIS was published on March 6, VDOT has received more than 130 comments, a mix of support and opposition, Wade said.

Among the opposing comments is a letter from the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of itself and 16 regional and state environmental organizations calling for a halt to the “wasteful and destructive” proposal.

“It is unnecessary, would increase sprawl and carbon pollution while destroying carbon sinks, and is a poor use of taxpayer dollars,” SELC Senior Attorney Trip Pollard, who co-authored the letter, was quoted as saying in a news release.

The SELC letter criticizes VDOT for “underestimating” the full environmental impact of the new connector and states that “the expected benefits of building this expansive new highway would fall far short of justifying its enormous cost.”

The letter acknowledges “some legitimate safety and traffic issues along U.S. 220 — such as geometric deficiencies, backups at a number of intersections and the need for greater access management,” but calls for VDOT to look at other alternatives before building the new connector through greenfield areas.

For instance, SELC attorneys wrote, the agency “fails to adequately study” alternatives such as upgrading the existing Route 220.

Information from VDOT shows the agency started the study with 11 potential routes and eventually narrowed the options to five, labelled A, B, C, D, and E. Two of these would have made improvements to 220 instead of building a route in a new location.

“There were two alternatives (D and E) analyzed in the Draft EIS that would have either partially (D) or fully (E) reconstructed the existing U.S. Route 220 corridor,” Wade wrote. “Alternative D would require an estimated 84 relocations, and Alternative E would require an estimated 130 relocations.

“Considering the context and severity of these anticipated impacts, Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and VDOT determined that Alternatives D and E would not be retained for detailed evaluation.

“As the project proponent, VDOT has a desire to implement an alternative that meets the Purpose and Need for the study, while balancing cost and impact. Though there is not a threshold for the number of impacts that are acceptable for a given project, the sheer number, associated costs and logistical challenges of Alternatives D and E do not reflect such a balance.”

Henry County Administrator Tim Hall noted, “Many of the same points that are raised in the letter from the Southern Environmental Law Center also were presented to the CTB during its approval process earlier this year. Ultimately, the CTB voted unanimously to allow the project to move forward.”

Hall added that the project has received letters of support from Henry County, the city of Martinsville, the Martinsville-Henry County Chamber of Commerce, Franklin County, Roanoke County, City of Roanoke, Appalachian Power Company, West Piedmont Planning District Commission, and General Assembly members Danny Marshall, Charles Poindexter, Les Adams, Bill Stanley, John Edwards, and Terry Austin.

“We need this road to help us continue our economic resurgence,” Hall said. “It is important to everyone along this corridor, as indicated by the widespread and bipartisan support shown by our neighboring localities.

“This project will have a huge impact on all localities between the North Carolina line and our friends in the Roanoke Valley, because it will make it easier for everyone’s business and industrial community to get their products to market. The new project also would enhance safety along the entire corridor, which includes the Summit View Business Park in Franklin County.”

Kim Barto Meeks is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. She can be reached at 276-638-8801.

Kim Barto Meeks is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. She can be reached at 276-638-8801.

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