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

By: - November 24, 2020 1:31 am

(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.”

Despite the opposition filed on permits related to the project, Wagoner said he hasn’t heard much dissent from the region’s residents. “People here are in favor of a four-lane connector from U.S. 58 along Route 220 down to North Carolina,” he said.  “There was debate on that, but we didn’t hear much opposition overall.” There were also letters of support from five localities, the planning district commission, the local chamber of commerce and six General Assembly members.

The localities view a large highway project to North Carolina as a strategic investment to overcome their decades-long downturn in terms of both population and economic growth. 

 “Building a highway here will boost our intermodal access, be an incentive for economic development to bring jobs here and help reverse those numbers. Dollar for dollar, building a highway here would have a bigger impact on the local community rather than building one in a part of the state that is already so congested that it would fill up with traffic right away.”

Wagoner said he hasn’t seen any economic growth forecasts specific to this project, but maintains that anything to improve access to a highway is valuable for creating jobs in a community. He and other officials at Henry County are also in favor of the much larger and more expensive I-73 highway project.

“Our ultimate goal is to continue I-73 north on up to Roanoke,” Wagoner said.  “Whether it’s called the Martinsville Southern Connector or I-73, this four lane road would be built to the same standard as a highway and would benefit us by giving us access to routes to move commodity-business related economic development forward.”

The area being considered for a possible new connector highway south of Martinsville. (Virginia Department of Transportation)

A highway for whom?

Today, just 63,988 people live in the two localities which would benefit from the connector: Martinsville and Henry County.  Both have experienced dwindling populations for decades.

By 2030 the University of Virginia’s Demographics Research Group predicts the two localities will lose an additional 5,651 residents — 8.8 percent of the current population. In another decade, that figure rises to 11,877 — 18.6 percent of today’s population. The relatively rapid loss of residents is one reason why Martinsville has been in talks with Henry County to revert to town status and be absorbed by the county. Critics contend the area’s weakening demographics strengthen their arguments that the connector would provide meager benefits for a high cost.  

The project’s last EIS anticipated direct impacts on 21,882 linear feet of streams (including 60 stream crossings), 3.7 acres of wetlands, 7.5 acres of 100-year floodplain, and 10.8 acres of 500-year floodplain. Its construction would also require clearing nearly 300 acres of farmland and 224 acres of forests, including 54 acres identified by the Department of Conservation and Recreation as areas of “high” ecological integrity.  

The human cost wouldn’t be negligible either. One hundred twenty one residential properties would be affected, and 25 households would have to be relocated — nine of which would take place within minority environmental justice communities. That doesn’t include the public health and climate impacts of highway building.

A recent report from the Virginia Clinicians for Climate Action underscored the connection between vehicle pollution and the chronic respiratory diseases that affect people living along major roadways, including many minority communities. If the new highway goes forward, by 2040 vehicle miles traveled along the corridor would jump by 18,568 miles per day (approximately 6.8 million miles per year) —a 10.8 percent increase.

Investing in congestion

Pushing for more pavement in spite of expected environmental degradation and human health impacts is not a uniquely Virginian phenomenon, said Scott Goldstein, policy director at Transportation for America (T4A)—a D.C. based transportation policy think-tank.

“For decades the solution to highway congestion has been more lane miles, and over decades that has clearly failed,” he said. “We want states to look at the concept of induced demand and assess projects as to how they may actually encourage more driving and congestion, thereby actually making traffic worse.”

In their recent report — The Congestion Con, Goldstein’s organization found that hundreds of billions of dollars worth of highway expansion over the past three decades actually led to far worse traffic than if the U.S. had built no new highways at all. After adding 30,511 new freeway lane-miles of road in America’s largest 100 urbanized areas between 1993 and 2017 (an increase of 42 percent), congestion delays increased by a staggering 144 percent even though populations in those areas only rose by 32 percent.

That’s why T4A instead encourages governments at all levels to focus transportation dollars on access. “Our current funding formulas encourage us to build highways for 50-mile commutes rather than focusing on access by boosting pedestrian infrastructure, adding a bike lane or increasing transit service,” Goldstein said. “People don’t wake up thinking ‘I can’t wait to drive 50 miles to get into work today.’  They think ‘I can’t wait to have a quick, safe commute to work, and that may be just a two-mile walk or a fifteen minute bus ride.”

After analyzing the 2009 Great Recession stimulus, T4A released a report detailing how spending on maintenance, walking and biking infrastructure and mass transit create far more jobs and yield higher long term economic growth than new highways.

“Prioritizing car travel into your town rather than movement around your town hasn’t been shown to bring in more economic development dollars,” Goldstein said. “Every dollar invested in maintenance has a higher return on investment and for spending on transit that figure was even higher. Infrastructure that supports mobility within a town creates more lasting economic growth.”

‘A boondoggle that falls short on every count’

The 17-group coalition that filed joint comments opposing the Martinsville Southern Connector in the most recent EIS process this June advocated an alternative approach to safety issues along the corridor — one laid out by VDOT itself in the 2019 study. By fixing existing geometrical deficiencies like adding turn lanes and improving intersections, the study suggested improvements to Route 220 would be both less disruptive and more cost effective.

VDOT ignoring the findings of the study in its most recent EIS triggered the current round of protest against the Martinsville Southern Connector.   

“You’ve got all this environmental damage, community destruction and extra emissions, but the vast majority of the safety and congestion problems with Route 220 are not going to be addressed by this $745 million project,” Pollard said.  “If the state continues to focus on the Martinsville Southern Connector, this whole thing could be backed up for years when you could instead go ahead with smaller projects that would begin to address the issues. This is a boondoggle that falls short on every count.”

VDOT only agreed to respond to written questions for this article, with a spokeswoman acknowledging that there isn’t enough money at the moment to build the project: “The scale of the Martinsville Southern Connector project would likely require an additional and/or alternative funding source in order to advance to completion.”

Although watchdogs agree VDOT has gotten better at avoiding wasteful highway projects over the last few years, the planning and development of the Martinsville Southern Connector feels too similar to the agency’s old modus operandi for some. Whether the state will ultimately move to pull the plug on the connector study and fund Route 220’s arterial improvement plan instead as advocates are demanding remains to be seen.

“People can always write to the Department of Environmental Quality to comment on the draft Virginia Water Protection Permit VDOT has requested for the proposed project,” said Pollard. “But really it’s the state that’s driving this process. They applied for the permit and put money into the study, so the place to blame the most is the CTB, the governor and VDOT.”

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the year of a study VDOT completed on the connector project. 

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Wyatt Gordon
Wyatt Gordon

Wyatt Gordon covers transportation, housing, and land use for the Mercury through a grant from the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Coalition for Smarter Growth. The Mercury retains full editorial control. Previously he’s written for the Times of India, Nairobi News, Honolulu Civil Beat, Style Weekly and RVA Magazine. He also works as a policy manager for land use and transportation at the Virginia Conservation Network.