U.S. 58 widening project approved
By MATTHEW MONKS
A Roanoke-based contractor on Monday agreed to begin reconstructing the Stuart-to-Hillsville stretch of the U.S. 58 corridor this spring, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT).
In the first public/private partnership of its kind in Southside, Branch Highways Inc. will develop, design and rebuild the 36-mile corridor from Hillsville to Stuart, according to John Lambert, spokesman for Branch.
The company should finish the first phase of the project – a $20 million reconstruction of a three-mile stretch west of Meadows of Dan and ending short of Virginia 795 – in late 2005, a VDOT press release states.
The three-mile stretch will be widened, and a new Blue Ridge Parkway Bridge will be constructed over U.S. 58.
Branch Vice President Larry Dickenson said the state will pay most of the $20 million from money previously allocated for the U.S. 58 project. The rest of the cost will be paid by Patrick County and some state revenue-sharing funds will be sought, he said.
Funding for the rest of the project to Hillsville will be negotiated, he added.
According to VDOT, U.S. 58 is Virginia’s longest road, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the southwestern tip of Virginia. The Virginia General Assembly initiated a program to widen and straighten it in 1989. Since then, construction has moved slowly from east to west across southern Virginia.
In 2002, Gov. Mark Warner’s administration discovered that a shortfall in funds left money to buy rights of way but not for construction. Branch offered to build the road and negotiations have continued since then, VDOT officials have said.
The Public Private Partnership Act allows private firms to work with the state to speed up construction projects. Also, big companies can leverage their resources to get larger jobs done, enabling VDOT to consider larger projects than it otherwise could afford, VDOT has stated.
Dickenson said under the partnership, Branch negotiated a package of services that includes construction, design, quality control, testing, buying remaining rights of way and utility relocations. Negotiations will determine how that will be financed from options such as the state selling bonds and paying Branch with proceeds from the bond sale, for example, he said.
Local state officials praised the construction plans, yet stressed that this is just a small step forward.
“I would be much happier if the plans were to do all 35 miles,” said Sen. Roscoe Reynolds, D-Ridgeway.
“A four-mile segment is not something to throw a huge party about, but at least we’re going forward rather than backward,” added Del. Ward Armstrong. “This jump starts (the project) and will help us get the road finished. Four miles at a time will take us a while, but at least this is something.”
VDOT will fund the initial three-mile phase. After that, construction will move along “as funding becomes available,” according to the VDOT release.
Future phases may be budgeted in the state’s six-year construction program and funded through “innovative financing,” according to Tamara Neale of VDOT.
“Funding is very tight right now for transportation programs,” Neale said. “There are other projects that are vying for funds as well – not just this one.”
Therefore, it is impossible to predict a timeline for future phases, she added.
Neale said Branch Highway had been contending for the U.S. 58 project since submitting an unsolicited proposal in May 2001. Out-sourcing the project benefits VDOT because it gives the state control of the project’s cost, she said.
Branch Highways is taking a risk by accepting the job, she explained, because it has agreed to a fixed-price contract. This means that the cost of the project will not be adjusted for inflation during the time it takes to complete the 36 miles.
Despite the risk, Dickenson said he was thrilled to win the contract.
“I feel great,” Dickenson said. “It’s really going to benefit the region and the public.”
Reynolds agreed. Sound infrastructure is key to economic development, he said, adding that upgrading the entire 36 mile stretch would make the entire region more attractive to prospects.
“If we were able to get it complete, economic conditions would be better in Southside Virginia,” he added.