Though the Interstate 73 highway project has long been stalled, Franklin County and other localities in the region haven’t given up on the idea of a faster link to North Carolina.
At its November meeting, the Franklin County Board of Supervisors was visited by key players in moving the project forward: Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, and Rob Catron with Alcalde & Fay — Virginia, a lobbying firm hired as a project advocate.
At the meeting, Stanley praised the county for taking the step last year of hiring a lobbyist. He said it was the first time Franklin County had ever done so, and County Administrator Brent Robertson said he believes the senator’s assertion was correct.
In 2015, Franklin County joined with four other localities — Roanoke and Henry counties and the cities of Martinsville and Roanoke — and the lobbying firm to create the Interstate 73 Coalition.
“The purpose of the coalition is to work on getting I-73 built in Virginia. That’s our mission, if you will,” said Catron, managing partner at the lobbying firm’s Virginia branch.
According to a June 2015 contract establishing the relationship, each locality pays the firm a monthly fee. For Franklin and Henry counties, it’s $1,500. Roanoke and Roanoke County pay $2,000 and Martinsville pays $1,000.
The contract is set to expire at the end of the year, but has a provision that would allow for its extension, if the localities provide the firm with written notice of their intent to continue the contract 60 days before it expires. On Tuesday, Robertson said he was unsure if that step had been taken. The contract predates Robertson, who started in his position in July 2015.
Franklin supervisors Chairman Cline Brubaker said the county has not given notice of its interest in extending the contract but said he believes the board is still interested in working with the lobbying firm to push the project forward. However, Brubaker said he cannot speak for his fellow supervisors.
“I know that I’m strongly in favor of it [I-73], I hope the rest of them are,” he said.
Catron would not comment on localities specifically, but said, “I anticipate the I-73 coalition continuing into the new year with the same members we have now or maybe even additional members.”
Robertson said the creation of the coalition speaks to the county’s view that transportation projects are “critically important,” particularly in a more rural area. This region has different transportation needs than say, Northern Virginia, where the primary concern is congestion, Robertson said.
“Here, we’re talking about connecting disparate dots,” he said. And Robertson believes the interstate could help to do that.
The county’s new 550-acre business park makes the interstate even more significant, as the road could be used to lure prospects, Robertson said, given that the project would have a direct impact on the transportation of goods.
Catron of the lobbying firm said localities generally hire lobbyists for their expertise concerning particular issues of interest and for their knowledge of state government . Transportation is a common issue for which localities seek assistance from lobbyists, he said, given its complex funding process.
In relation to I-73, the firm is essentially “trying to be a squeaky wheel to get some grease,” Catron said.
There are many projects in Virginia worthy of funding, he said, so a locality needs to have a presence in Richmond getting the word out about the project and ensuring it’s a priority.
“That’s what we bring, is a focus and an effort to get those CTB [Commonwealth Transportation Board] members and the administration and the General Assembly to pay attention to our project,” Catron said. “Because frankly if you don’t do that, it will never get built.”
Catron outlined legislative initiatives that have been pursued thus far, such as working to establish an interstate compact with other states the highway will travel through; creating a state senate subcommittee, which Stanley chairs, to research the project and the impact it would have on the region’s economy; and introducing legislation that would create an I-73 development fund and program that would reallocate the money going toward a similar fund for the U.S. 58 corridor, though that money likely wouldn’t come through for another 15 to 20 years.
The most recent idea floated around to push the project forward is creating a regional transportation district, in which the state sales tax rate is increased by 0.7 percent, bumping it up from 5.3 to an even 6 percent, and the additional money collected goes toward funding projects within that region. Stanley pitched the idea to the board at its November meeting. Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads have established such regional transportation districts.
Robertson said the senator made strong arguments for a regional transportation district, but that the board would need more information before it could come to a decision about an initiative that would require a tax increase.
“There can be a lot of value to the localities being able to have that sort of discretionary funds to focus on projects for this area that they can control the decision making on,” Robertson said. “Obviously you’re ultimately talking about a tax increase.”
The supervisors briefly discussed the senator’s presentation during a Tuesday strategic planning meeting. Robertson asked the board members whether they’d want to discuss a regional transportation district at their December meeting. Ultimately the supervisors decided not to put it on the agenda, saying they’d like more information before moving forward.
The transportation district idea came up before the Henry County Board of Supervisors in October, but no action was taken because no member of the board offered a resolution amid concerns voiced about the proposal, according to The Martinsville Bulletin. The Martinsville City Council so far is the only government body to support the concept.