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LAUREL FORK — Two superhighway-related projects will remain in Carroll County after completion of the 8.2-mile widening of U.S. 58 from Laurel Fork to Meadows of Dan, which state and local officials and Branch Highways ceremonially broke ground on Tuesday.
“We’re here to break ground on what I believe ... is the largest project in our district’s history, which is a $120 million project,” said Richard Caywood, the Virginia Department of Transportation Salem District administrator, at the outset of the remarks. “It’s a combination of two projects that we know by the name of Laurel Fork and Tri-County.”
The last part of widening 58 to four lanes in Carroll County involves the nearly-as-long Crooked Oak section of 7.2 miles, with a more expensive cost estimate of $151 million. VDOT officials continue to acquire the rights of way for the planned work.
Additionally, transportation officials plan to spend $10 million to improve Virginia 669 as a connector between 58 and U.S. 221 and Virginia 100.
Outside of Carroll, the 7.8 miles of improvements at Lovers Leap Mountain will require $206 million in funding and the four miles at Vesta will cost $113 million.
Robbie Williams, VDOT construction engineer, told a crowd of locals standing in a sunny plot that, after completion of the Laurel Fork section, the Salem District will be more than half finished with its work on the superhighway.
VDOT continues to pursue 36 of those miles with Branch Highways as part of a public-private partnership. Branch has completed the 2.7-mile section at the Blue Ridge Parkway in Meadows of Dan and the 5.2-mile Hillsville bypass.
VDOT did the work on the 24-mile stretch that ended at Stuart.
“We’ve crossed over halfway, so we’re on the downhill run of that,” he said.
Dana Martin, the Salem district representative on the Commonwealth Transportation Board, said he has memories of driving on U.S. 58 — memories of being in danger.
“I’m from Martinsville and anything that’s widening and straightening Route 58 is too good to me,” he said. “There were times I scared myself half to death driving on Route 58.”
U.S. 58 is a transportation corridor of statewide significance, Martin noted. At 508 miles, it’s longer than Interstate 81 in Virginia.
He asked the audience to help in the drive to get the General Assembly to provide the funding to finish the road work. The General Assembly, like a wheelbarrow, works better when pushed, Martin joked.
Several of the speakers — including Will Karbach, president of Branch Highways — made reference to U.S. 58’s importance as a connector to get goods to and from Virginia’s ports.
The expansion of the Panama Canal will triple the capacity of cargo that can float through on transport ships, he said. It’s expected this will double the amount of goods shipped to the East Coast within a couple of decades.
“And given that our ports are some of the deepest and some of the most expandable,” Karbach said, “that makes our ports a very attractive place for all that cargo to go.
“And there are only so many ways out of Hampton Roads and 58 can be one of those corridors.”
But "who in their right mind" would use 58 now, he asked, referring to the steep grades and curves still on the two-lane sections.
Allowing Southside and Southwest Virginia to take advantage of the increasing commerce makes Branch Highways immensely proud to be a part of improving 58.
“It’s wonderful being part of such a positive project where you know that the end result is really going to benefit friends and neighbors and people who live here,” Karbach said.
Further stressing the importance of the ports, Del. Charles Poindexter (R-Henry County) noted that about one out of every eight jobs in Virginia has some connection to the Port of Virginia.
Del. Anne B. Crockett-Stark (R-Wytheville) has visited Charleston and Savannah recently to see how they are expanding their ports, and she thinks they are working to take the shipping that could land in Virginia.
The availability of the port and the improvement of the road works together, she said.
Crockett-Stark also looked back in history to find when the first demand for roads west of Roanoke were made. As a result, she found a petition about that in the Montgomery County courts as early as 1740.
Roads have always been needed in the mountains, she said. When Thomas Jefferson called on Meriwether Lewis to find a way to the west in 1803, the explorer could only make 12 miles a day on his horse.
Sen. Bill Stanley said the importance of the 58 improvements can’t be overstated in terms of the economic vitality of Southwest and Southside Virginia.
“What I continuously tell everyone in Richmond who will listen is that we do not need a handout,” he said. “We just need a hand, and this road is a part of that hand.”
When work starts after groundbreaking, construction on the Laurel Fork section will cause the excavation of 1.7 million cubic meters of rock and dirt, the laying of 15,000 meters worth of drainage pipe, the installation of 10,000 meters of guardrail and the addition of 135,000 metric tons of asphalt.
Construction is projected to wrap up by October 2015.