December 16, 2005
By CHARLES BOOTHE
Martinsville Bulletin Staff Writer
If Gov. Mark Warner's proposed biennium budget is approved, the Martinsville-Henry County area stands to see about $10.3 million for road improvement projects as well as a hiking trail along the Smith River.
Warner released his plan to inject $625 million extra into the budget for statewide transportation needs on Thursday, with about $2 million of that applied locally as federal matching funds.
Most of that amount, $1.9 million, will be matched with $7.6 million in federal funds for Interstate 73, bringing the total money proposed to be spent locally for the I-73 project to $9.5 million.
The Liberty Street project, which is currently under way, would receive another $236,800 in federal funds with $59,200 in state matching funds for a total of $296,000.
The Smith River trail project stands to receive $400,000 in federal funding and $100,000 from Warner's proposed transportation funding for a total of $500,000.
The Smith River trail, part of the rails to trails project that is being pushed by Rep. Rick Boucher, D-9th District, will be a section of a system of trails throughout the region.
Boucher has said that this money would be used for the first phase, construction of a 3- to 4-mile trail on the abandoned rail line from Fieldale to Koehler along the Smith River.
According to previous reports, the I-73 money will be used for buying land and planning and engineering studies. If completed, the interstate would run from Detroit to Charleston, S.C., passing through Henry County as it links the Roanoke area to the Piedmont Triad.
More than $2.7 million in federal and state matching funds have also been earmarked for engineering and right of way studies for I-73 in the Roanoke area.
Many area civic and government leaders have been pushing for I-73 for years, saying the interstate would help open up the area for more economic development.
The Virginia Department of Transportation is currently conducting an environmental impact study on I-73. Chuck Lionberger, a VDOT spokesman for the Salem regional office, said the study has not yet been completed.
'The study is still being worked on,' he said. 'There has been no announcement yet as to when it might be (finished) or released.'
When it is completed, the study will be sent to the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) for review. If the FHA determines that construction of the highway would cause no major environmental problems, it will issue a record of decision that indicates approval, VDOT officials have said.
'This money (for local and regional transportation needs) is a way to help keep the area moving,' said Kevin Hall, Warner's press secretary. 'But it's not in any way a be-all and end-all solution for Southside transportation needs.'
Hall said much more needs to be done, but Warner wanted to make sure Southside gets a share of whatever transportation funds are approved.
Also, Hall said the governor is optimistic about the money being kept in the budget.
'It would be hard to imagine a lawmaker being against this,' he said, adding that a 'huge chunk' of Warner's proposal will access federal dollars that could quickly get projects under way.
Another of those projects is the completion of the four-laning of U.S. 58 from Stuart to Hillsville. In Warner's proposed funding, $45 million is earmarked for a four-lane bypass on U.S. 58 around Hillsville. A similar bypass was recently completed around Meadows of Dan.
Also, $1.5 million is earmarked for the Rocky Knob Heritage Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Patrick County.
Del. Ward Armstrong, who has been a proponent of the U.S. 58 project as well as I-73, said he is pleased with the funding proposal.
'I'm delighted,' he said. 'It's like an early Christmas present.'
Armstrong said he has been persistent in lobbying the administration on completing the U.S. 58 project and I-73. 'But the governor doesn't need me to tell him about our transportation needs,' he said.
Armstrong praised Warner for his interest and support of the region.
'Taking this type of action underscores his (Warner's) intense commitment to this area,' he said, adding that it will be an ongoing battle to obtain funds since Warner is leaving office.
However, he said he is confident Gov.-elect Tim Kaine will help make sure the proposed money stays in the budget.
'There are no warranties (in budget proposals),' he said. 'Nothing is a done deal until ten days after adjournment (of the General Assembly).'
Kaine released a statement Thursday that expressed support for Warner's proposal.
'Today, Gov. Warner announced a significant investment in our transportation infrastructure,' the statement said. 'The fiscally sound funding commitment will help the commonwealth make progress on important road, rail, port and public transportation projects.'
The $625 million proposal includes $339 million, or 54 percent, for one-time funding for specific transportation projects and programs, according to a press release from Warner. Of that, $142 million will provide the 20 percent matching funds for projects included in the recently passed federal transportation bill.
The $2 million in matching funds for all local and regional projects are included in that $142 million. That's important, Hall said, because of the high likelihood this money will be kept in the budget so the federal dollars will not be lost.
Forty-six percent of the $625 million, or $286 million, would be used to support bonds used to finance long-term transportation projects and for public transportation projects.
Warner said in the release that he will provide more details of his budget proposal today.
The General Assembly will convene in January to consider the budget for the 2006-2008 biennium.
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