June 14, 2008

Road Plans Yield to Dollar Signs

By Jeff Sturgeon [email protected] 981-3251

About 25 major road initiatives in Southwest Virginia -- including long-awaited congestion-easing projects in the Roanoke Valley -- are on the verge of being halted or removed from the state's development pipeline.

The planned widening of U.S. 220 in Botetourt County to enhance the safety of traveling between Eagle Rock and Iron Gate could be put on indefinite hold.

Reconstruction of the Elm Avenue interchange, at times jammed with traffic accessing or leaving Interstate 581, could lose its slot in the budget altogether.

The same is true for a planned widening of Virginia 114 in Montgomery County and of U.S. 460 in Roanoke and into Botetourt. Removal from the budget would deny each job all chance of funding.

The news appears in a lean six-year road budget up for adoption by the Commonwealth Transportation Board on Thursday. State budget analysts have suggested the CTB bring an earlier draft spending plan down by 44 percent.

"The financial outlook for the commonwealth's transportation program is challenging," Richard Caywood, the Salem-based Virginia Department of Transportation administrator, wrote to area government leaders this week.

Economic conditions are one factor trimming projected outlays for 2009 to 2015, but so are higher road-upkeep costs and the recent rollback of "abusive-driver" fees that had been passed to deter reckless driving while raising cash for better roads. Less money than expected will be coming in, while certain mandatory costs are going up, analysts said.

Dana Martin, who represents Southwest Virginia on the CTB and was consulted about the cuts, said the region will suffer losses on par with other areas of the state.

"Everybody in the state has to feel the pain," Martin said.

Gov. Tim Kaine is pushing new road-funding measures, which, if approved, would enable the CTB to put projects back in VDOT's Six- Year Improvement Program.

Del. William Fralin, R-Roanoke, is a member of the House Transportation Committee.

"Any time you have project reductions, people are going to be disappointed," Fralin said. "It's interesting that this is happening now."

House Republicans have disputed the long-range revenue projections Kaine's administration used in forecasting the maintenance deficit, saying the projections assume that the sluggish economy won't recover.

"If they're basing it on the governor's numbers, I'm not sure they're going to be completely accurate over six years," Fralin said.

House Republicans have said the General Assembly should use a June 23 special session to pass regional funding plans for Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads to replace those that were invalidated earlier this year by the Virginia Supreme Court. Democrats have argued that the maintenance deficit points to broader, statewide needs.

"I think everybody understands that there is a transportation infrastructure problem," said Del. Onzlee Ware, D-Roanoke, a former member of the Commonwealth Transportation Board. "It needs an infusion of money."

Dire as the situation appears, numerous road projects costing millions are slated to go forward.

For example, VDOT has invited residents to comment at 5 p.m. Tuesday at Falling Branch Elementary School in Christiansburg on a $72 million truck-climbing lane on Interstate 81 between mile markers 119 and 128 in Montgomery County. Construction companies are expected to submit bids in fall 2009.

A study vital to determining how to complete the partial I-581 interchange near Target and Best Buy in Roanoke will go forward. VDOT will seek bids to widen West Main Street in the Glenvar area of Roanoke County for nearly $43 million and replace the damaged westbound Virginia 114 bridge over the New River for $17 million.

Improvements to I-81's Exit 150 -- at times congested with trucks and cars -- remain on course, with interim steps to ease turning due to start this month and a proposed overhaul concept slated for public discussion later this year.

Analysts also recommend going forward with interim safety and operational improvements to the I-581 Elm Avenue interchange, such as adding to the holding capacity of the ramps, even though a proposed reconstruction of the interchange has been mothballed.

But a proposed $50 million widening of Electric Road to six lanes from the Tanglewood Mall to the Oak Grove area of Roanoke County is poised to be dropped from budgeting consideration.

Nonetheless, traffic in front of the mall "seems to be moving very smoothly," said Rebecca Spaid, mall marketing manager.

Staff Writer Michael Sluss contributed to this report.

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