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Dana Martin has spent nearly 10 years on the Commonwealth Transportation Board.
REBECCA BARNETT | The Roanoke Times
Dana Martin of Roanoke County plans to devote the 15 to 20 hours a week previously spent on commission business to his family.
The Roanoke Times | File 2012
An aerial view of the widening project along Interstate 81.
Sunday, August 4, 2013
For an update on Southwest Virginia transportation issues, you could examine the Six-Year Improvement Plan of the Virginia Department of Transportation. Or pull some highway construction drawings.
Or you could spend a few minutes with Dana Martin of Roanoke County, who on June 30 completed nearly 10 years as a member of the Commonwealth Transportation Board. The 67-year-old Martinsville native and self-employed training consultant was the Roanoke-New River region’s representative on the statewide panel that budgets money to highways, rail, airports and other transportation assets. Martin never missed a meeting of the body, which meets almost monthly. He said he plans to devote the 15 to 20 hours a week previously spent on commission business to his family.
Martin talked recently about his time on the board and his predictions for the region’s major roadways.
Let’s get your take on how typical residents see the road system. Based on what they tell you or tell other state officials, is there a preponderance of satisfaction or dissatisfaction?
A: What we hear is a preponderance of dissatisfaction, but there is a big caveat. The dissatisfaction tends to be specific as opposed to just dissatisfaction with the whole road system; it’s dissatisfaction with specific issues — whatever it is. I guess that’s why we’re hearing from them. Interestingly enough, my recollection, a good half or almost half would have to do with dissatisfaction with plans — with, say, the [Northern Virginia] North-South Corridor or the Charlottesville Bypass as opposed to the congestion. And we do get a fair amount of complaints about congestion … [and] less about safety.
Your term began in 2003 and the first several years were a period of prosperity. That was followed by a period of recession and then a slow recovery and very recently a new transportation funding bill. Describe how the availability of funds has changed over that period.
A: My term ended midnight
June 30 and one second later we had money with which to work that got back almost to the same level as when I started. It was the first time that I would have had any considerable amount of money to apportion. Now I did have input with that for this Six-Year Plan because we knew what we had coming, so this Six-Year Plan did reflect it.
So it wasn’t just a total washout.
However, the — what was it? — 9 billion [dollars] roughly is actually less than my first year on the board, which was around 10 billion [dollars]. In around 2005 or so — you have to double-check my figures — I recall it getting down to the 6-, maybe 7-billion [dollar] level. I think 2010 it was down to 5 [billion dollars].
So, before we got to this Six-Year Plan, it was treading water and fighting riptides of trying to make sure that we didn’t get into a situation where it was like the Minnesota bridge [collapse in 2007], of trying to be prescient, and to [know] what were going to be the dangerous areas. ...
It created a lot more reliance on professional staff and a lot less flexibility in responding to citizen desires and needs. And a lot of analysis and listening and hoping you were making the right decision as you apportioned less funds over that middle period in there.
Were you successful in preventing something even close to the Minnesota bridge collapse?
A: To the best as has been humanly possible, roads, bridges, safety issues have gotten what money they need to prevent some sort of catastrophe. Now preventing frustration and annoyance, that’s a whole different story.
In that climate, how did you see that your area of Southwest Virginia was allocated its fair share of money?
A: During my tenure, my observation has been that the entire board thought in terms of the entire state as opposed to its individual regions. So after a relatively short time, I was comfortable that if I simply understood what our needs were and our priorities were and expressed them in those terms, that nobody was going to try to get money that we needed. It was more a matter of collaboration to make sure everybody got at least the minimum that they needed, rather than compromise to make sure everybody got as little as they would accept.
It’s obvious as I drive around that many road projects are under way. In spite of many needs being met, I’m interested in what’s coming next after the projects currently under way are finished. Let’s talk about Interstate 81. In 2006, the state changed its position and dropped the concept of an end-to-end widening in favor of location-specific improvements such as the truck lanes that are due to be finished on Christiansburg Mountain later this year and the truck lanes in the Rockbridge County area. Tell us what’s next for I-81, specifically around Roanoke.
A: Around Roanoke, the [exit] 150 area is the only thing I’m comfortable is going to be next. There are things people are talking about, but there is nothing in the current Six-Year Plan that is anything major or significant for I-81. Now I-81 in general is what we call a corridor of statewide significance and also on the governor’s list. So at any point depending on funding you could see proposals.
Do you see the study that’s under way of widening I-81 between Christiansburg and Daleville leading to widening?
A: I see that if funding is there, it will lead to justification for widening. Now what people do with the justification, I don’t know. But it statistically, empirically, needs widening. It needs improvement. You can’t change the terrain, so widening is the only viable option.
Should it be three lanes in each direction or four lanes in each direction?
A: In the Roanoke area? Three should be ample and should be ample for a while into the future. Now, four would be ideal but might not be practical. So it would be a matter of, in a perfect world, it would be four and it would have minimal impact on anything and it might include something out of the box to allow for cars and trucks to get their own way better. I won’t be cryptic about that. In a perfect world it might include something like high-occupancy lanes for automobiles.
What’s your realistic assessment of the proposed I-73 project between Roanoke and Ridgeway near the North Carolina line?
A: It’s like hope and prayer on that. As people have been saying long before I came along, it’s something that would be crucial for the depressed area down around Henry County and even parts of it would help them. It would be nice to get down to Greensboro airport for [people] here. It would have some economic impact on the Roanoke Valley. My belief is because it is such a valuable and I think necessary thing that it will not go away. ...
Now the governor’s recent suggestion on PPTA [the Public Private Partnership Act, which allows private companies to underwrite transportation projects]. I’m skeptical that’s going to actually turn out to be the way, not skeptical for any particular reason. But at least it’s trying and it might lead to something, some sort of hybrid that might include partial PPTA or whatever — something to get it done.
Would you be surprised to see it finished before 2025?
In the meantime, does U.S. 220 need substantial additional work? Some people tell me it does.
A: That’s no secret. When we had more money with which to work, one of the things that we continued to do was either put in or add into the Six-Year Plan little spot improvements on 220. … That will continue to happen as funding permits.
I don’t think it is a viable alternative to I-73. Again, I am not a professional engineer, but as far as the topography, the standards for an interstate, by the time you turn that into interstate standards, you wreak at least as much havoc on the environment as you’re going to wreak with I-73 and you spend as much money and you only have one road.
I hear more work is possible on 220 assuming the money is there. Can you somehow describe the likely impact of the new transportation bill? It means the money’s going to be there, right?
A: It actually means we’re back to where we should have been six years or so ago. It means that now we’re not fighting a riptide, but ... we’re doggy-paddling instead of treading water. It means we can go ahead and prevent some future safety issues and address a little bit of congestion. But we just lost all that ground during that time. So 220 is like every other road in the state. It won’t get what it ideally needs but it won’t have to get worse, either.
What’s next for you in terms of your public and private life?
A: Well, my intent, my stated intent, is to slow down and not replace those hours that I used to spend on the transportation board with anything but my son [Jordan, 10]. I guess most people would use a much more simple term, and call it retirement.
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