BLACKSBURG — The town council narrowly passed a resolution Tuesday night backing a hefty funding request for the proposed connection of the Smart Road to Interstate 81.
The request came from the New River Valley Metropolitan Planning Organization, which about two years ago re-introduced a $215 million proposal to link the currently private Smart Road in Blacksburg to the roadway that provides the quickest route between the New River and Roanoke valleys.
Town council passed the resolution on a 4-3 vote.
The MPO plans to submit the request to the next round of Smart Scale, a competitive program that scores locally submitted transportation projects seeking state funding. New application rules require that submissions obtain formal backing from localities that the projects would be in.
The Smart Road is currently under the management of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and is regularly used as a test track for automotive innovations such as self-driving cars.
State transportation officials have talked about the connection to I-81 since the Smart Road was first envisioned in the late 1980s. But little progress on the connector has been made since, with officials citing insufficient traffic volume in Blacksburg and Christiansburg as one deterrent.
While Blacksburg Town Council passed the resolution, the division of the votes on Tuesday highlighted some of the ongoing doubts about the connector.
Council members who voted against the resolution voiced concerns about the project’s $215 million price tag, which they said would make it highly unlikely that the proposal earns a favorable Smart Scale score and approval from the state’s decision makers.
“I think it’s far too expensive,” Blacksburg Vice Mayor Susan Anderson said some moments before voting against the resolution.
Councilwoman Susan Mattingly, who also voted against the resolution, said she doesn’t want the town to send “mixed messages about our transportation priorities.”
Mattingly didn’t elaborate, but her comment was a reference to the placement of greater emphasis on other local transportation initiatives.
One of those priorities is the hopeful establishment of an Amtrak station in the New River Valley, a proposal that itself spurred a regional initiative called New River Valley Rail 2020.
“The thing people are wildly enthusiastic about in this region is not more highway, but passenger rail,” Mayor Leslie Hager-Smith said before Tuesday’s council meeting. “Is the gesture [Smart Road resolution] worthwhile? And sometimes gestures are worthwhile.”
Hager-Smith, along with councilmen Michael Sutphin, John Bush and Jerry Ford Jr., voted in favor of the resolution. Councilwoman Lauren Colliver joined Anderson and Mattingly in voting against the resolution.
Council’s action on the resolution came about a month after the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors issued a unanimous vote in support of the MPO application.
While MPO and other transportation officials themselves concede that the connector is unlikely to get funding anytime soon, they say that the push to finally fulfill the longtime promise needs to be made now.
The most recent iteration of the proposed connector would include a new interchange on I-81 and about 3.5 miles of new road and four new bridges through the mountainous region east of Blacksburg and Christiansburg.
The extended road would connect with the interstate at the Den Hill Road overpass near mile marker 121.
The connector would shave what is being estimated as 12 minutes off the current 40-minute drive between Blacksburg and Roanoke, according to recent estimates.
Former Commonwealth Transportation Board member William Fralin, who represented the Salem District, also previously said that the plan would aim to cut costs by only building two lanes and making the connector itself quasi-public.
For example, the connector could be opened to commuters on weekday mornings. The road would then be closed for testing in the afternoon and reopened in time for evening rush hour.
During major events, such as Virginia Tech football games, the extension could also be converted into a one-way road to accommodate increased traffic to and from Lane Stadium.