VDOT policy change could delay road project

FRONT ROYAL – The town likely must wait a while longer to see improvements made to another section of Happy Creek Road.

The Virginia Department of Transportation recently notified town staff that a policy change by the agency likely means a delay with the second phase of the Happy Creek Road project. VDOT won’t allow projects to move forward to any stage of the design or construction process until the project has been fully funded through the construction phase, according to information from the agency.

Town Manager Steve Burke advised Town Council on Monday of the changes that went into effect Jan. 1.

More than $1.3 million has been allocated in urban funds toward the project. However, the town cannot access the VDOT money until the agency has the full amount needed for the project, Burke said. VDOT estimates the cost of the second phase at about $4 million, Burke added.

The town is looking for alternative funding sources to make up the $2.7 million in order to use the $1.3 million – leftover funds from the first phase – and move forward on phase II. VDOT had advised the town they could expect more money left over from the first phase of the project – approximately $2.7 million, Burke said.

“Two or three months ago we got another ‘sorry about your bad luck’ message from VDOT that their estimate was incorrect and the true amount was $1.3 million,” Burke said.

Council took into account the original, higher estimated amount when members considered the project’s second phase and whether or not to support the construction of Warren County’s new middle school, Vice Mayor Hollis Tharpe recalled, noting that buses must travel on Happy Creek Road.

“How much is this going to put that project out because the school’s going to be finished in two years and we need to be ready,” Tharpe said.

“Well our hope had been that we would’ve been able to utilize whatever funding had remained from Happy Creek phase I to go toward the design so we could get a better handle on the construction cost,” Burke said.

A preliminary engineering study likely would give the town a more accurate cost estimate, Burke said.

The first phase cost approximately $7 million and covered a longer section of road, Burke said. The second phase covers more difficult terrain that affects the cost. Councilwoman Bébhinn Egger said she hopes the second phase doesn’t cost $7 million. Delays also could cause the project cost to increase, Mayor Timothy Darr said.

VDOT has recommended that the town seek funds through House Bill 2 or the state agency’s cost-sharing program. The problem with either option: applications for the programs aren’t accepted until November and money would not be awarded until July 2017, Burke said. Town staff plans to look for local money in the fiscal 2017 and other funding opportunities to create a preliminary engineering report for the project.

The change also could delay work on Happy Creek Road in Warren County and have an impact on other projects in its Secondary Six-Year Plan. Deputy County Administrator Robert Childress said Monday that while VDOT has not sent any official notice, agency representatives have relayed information about the policy change. Happy Creek Road is the next priority in the county’s Six Year Plan, Childress said. The county is waiting for official word about the policy change.

Steven K. Damron, senior programming specialist in VDOT’s Staunton District, advised Burke by email last month about the change and its effect on the Happy Creek project.

Damron and other VDOT officials worked last fall to close out the first phase of the Happy Creek Road project and transferred the remaining balance of the funding – $1.31 million – to the second phase, the memo states. The urban funds would have covered preliminary engineering for the second phase and some of the costs to acquire rights-of-way for the project. Funds allocated to the project will remain available through January 2018 if more money can be secured. If not, the money will be taken away after January 2018, Damron notes.

Using town money to pay for the preliminary design would help the project score better in the House Bill 2 process, Damron states.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com

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