When it comes to the proposed Interstate 73 project, the next best thing to the road is a road sign.

Local, state and federal transportation patrons on Friday hailed the installation of five signs that say “Future 73 Corridor.”

You’ll see the red and blue markers along Interstate 581 and the Roy L. Webber Expressway  soon.

Around here, all references to I-73 mean the Virginia leg of a proposed new interstate from northern Michigan to South Carolina’s coast. The idea has been around for more than 20 years, but only incremental segments have been built, mainly in North and South Carolina.

Local supporters are chiefly interested in the stretch that would permit high-speed vehicular travel between Roanoke and the North Carolina line, 13 miles south of Martinsville near Ridgeway.

It’s going to be pricey at an estimated $4 billion, a mega-project by national standards, and there’s $11 million available so far through federal earmarks and state matching dollars. Put another way, Virginia has lined up about one three-hundred-fiftieth of the amount needed. It’s too little to begin any logical segment of the project, said Jason Bond, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Transportation.

VDOT paid for the signs at $400 apiece at the request of the Roanoke Valley Transportation Planning Organization. That regional planning body called for building the road “as soon as feasible.”

Roanoke City Council member Court Rosen, a participant at Friday’s event, said his hunch is that there is some combination of federal, state and local dollars that could make the project happen. “Highways don’t get built often anymore, but they can be built,” said Rosen, who sits on the Commonwealth Transportation Board.

At the least, the signs make clear that Roanoke sits along the official corridor, which mirrors I-581 in the Roanoke Valley, officials said.

U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Roanoke County, whose efforts helped bring the official route through Roanoke back in the 1990s, restated his commitment to see the road built.

State Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, predicted it will be built “in our lifetime.” He is 47 and noted that the typical life expectancy is 75. That leaves 28 years in his lifetime.

Stanley celebrated the business activity that an economic impact study predicted would follow after the proposed future interstate opens.

Chmura Economics & Analytics of Richmond has forecast those economic dividends would be $310 million in new business revenue in 2020, with 3,164 people employed at the various businesses. In its November 2014 report, Chmura predicted 141 new motels, fast food restaurants, gas stations and full service restaurants and possibly a distribution center would open along Virginia I-73.

Stanley, who leads a General Assembly subcommittee backing the initiative, said the project could pay for itself in 10 years.

The year that traffic begins moving on I-73 won’t be 2020, however. If the state had the entire $4 billion today, it would be “reasonable” to estimate it would take 10 years to build the Virginia leg, said Ken King, Salem district engineer for the Virginia Department of Transportation.

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Jeff Sturgeon covers business, banking, transportation and federal court. Phone: (540) 981-3251. Email: jeff.sturgeon@roanoke.com. Mail: 201 W. Campbell Ave., Roanoke, VA 24011.

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