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Regional authority challenged to help close the gap and widen I-64 in New Kent

A new regional authority is being challenged to make a financial commitment to help close the gap from an unwidened portion of Interstate 64 east of Richmond, even as the body tries to move ahead with a $276 million spending plan for 30 other high-priority projects in the region.

The Central Virginia Transportation Authority was about to adopt the new plan on Friday, using money collected from regional gasoline taxes imposed in nine localities two years ago, when New Kent County and its allies asked the body to reconsider the plan in order to include the widening of a 29-mile stretch of I-64 from Bottoms Bridge in New Kent to Lightfoot in James City County.

“I’m here to tell you, in New Kent we need some money,” New Kent Supervisor Patricia Paige told the authority. “We have become the I-64 gap.”

The request—backed by the region’s representative on the Commonwealth Transportation Board and two Richmond legislators—failed after Henrico and Chesterfield counties used their population weight to block a motion to return the plan to committee to include a regional commitment toward the $700 million I-64 project without diverting money from other local priorities.

The authority then approved the proposed funding plan without I-64, after Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney joined with Chesterfield and Henrico to support it, he said with the understanding that the regional body would work informally to find a solution on one of Virginia’s top transportation priorities.

“I think it’s an important project for the commonwealth—I think it’s an important project for the Richmond and Hampton Roads regions,” Secretary of Transportation Shep Miller said in an interview on Tuesday.

The General Assembly is negotiating a new two-year budget that is likely to include more than $100 million in state funding for the project. The Senate has proposed almost $200 million and the House $50 million, with the final figure expected to land on the high end of the range.

Widening I-64 also is likely to include federal money under the newly enacted Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act as the state tries to lower the unfinanced balance enough to qualify for state transportation funding under Virginia’s rigorous Smart Scale process for scoring proposed projects.

“All of us are trying to find ways to cobble enough funding together to get it done,” said Miller, who noted that the Hampton Roads Transportation Accountability Commission also is expected to contribute regional funds to the project.

The transportation secretary didn’t specify a dollar amount for the region to contribute to the project, but Carlos Brown, an authority member who serves on the Commonwealth Transportation Board, urged a moral commitment of up to $100 million.

“This is a regional body that is supposed to be doing big things,” said Brown, who also serves on the board of directors of the Richmond Metropolitan Transportation Authority, formerly known as the RMA.

Initially the motion to approve the overall funding plan appeared to have failed on a 12-3 vote, but the regional planning organization that supports the authority confirmed on Friday that the motion had passed because of weighted votes based on population.

However, PlanRVA Executive Director Martha Heeter said Wednesday that the vote outcome has been challenged and the organization’s technical advisory committee could address the issue at its scheduled meeting on Monday.

Henrico County Manager John Vithoulkas said Wednesday that Henrico, Chesterfield and Richmond encompass more than four-fifths of the region’s population, which is the threshold for approving a plan that would help win additional state funding for projects that are high priorities in seven of the nine localities in the compact.Vithoulkas predicted that localities in the region would “rally around and figure out some sort of funding mechanism” to widen I-64, but he expressed dismay over the last-minute attempt to amend the plan.

“You had people get ambushed in that meeting,” he said in an interview. “That’s not the way regional conversations occur, not successful ones.”

The funding plan represents the authority’s first attempt to allocate a new pot of regional funds for major transportation priorities—such as the replacement of Mayo Bridge across the James River in downtown Richmond, widening of Woolridge Road in Chesterfield, and upgrading Woodman Road to a four-lane, divided highway between Mountain and Hungary roads in Henrico.

The plan includes improvements to Route 288 in Goochland and Powhatan counties, safety improvements to the Route 1 and Route 30 intersection in Hanover, and a rail overpass at Vaughan Road in Ashland.

“I know there’s always a little consternation in the beginning when you go through the mechanics of it,” Chesterfield Supervisor Joe Casey said Wednesday.

Only New Kent and adjoining Charles City County were not awarded projects under the plan. “New Kent has been a team player, with the understanding that we are one of the smallest,” Paige said.

New Kent had asked for almost $400 million for the I-64 project—about 43% more than the money available—which caused it to score the lowest in cost-benefit of any of the projects proposed for funding.

Even so, Brown led the effort to include the project in the funding plan, which he said would help the region gain additional state transportation funding through the next round of Smart Scale allocations in late summer.

With money from the federal infrastructure act, “this will be the largest that we’ve ever seen,” he said, “and if we miss the opportunity, then we miss it.”

The effort also received strong support from Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, former chair of the House Transportation Committee, and Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, a member of the Senate Finance & Appropriations Committee, which has made the I-64 widening a major budget priority.

They said the interstate has become a bottleneck between the Bottom’s Bridge and Lightfoot because the highway narrows from three to two lanes in each direction. The congestion is especially intense in summer, when tourist travel is high to Virginia Beach and the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

Paige of New Kent said the widening is important for commerce as well as for safety.

“New Kent was fortunate enough to get one of the largest warehouses that AutoZone will probably every build,” she said. “However, what difference does that make if we cannot get their product into Exit 211?”

I-64 also is a vital artery for traffic serving the Port of Virginia and a cluster of military installations in Hampton Roads, as well as the main evacuation route out of that region during a hurricane or other emergency.

McQuinn said that in the event of an evacuation the gap would create a bottleneck.

“We’re going to have a serious problem with that 29 miles that have not been addressed,” said McQuinn, who proclaimed, “64 represents all of us.”

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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