Should the Town of Pulaski use some of its urban transportation funds to make improvements to Exit 94 outside the town limits, or wait for the state to improve the main interstate access into town?
That’s the decision Pulaski Town Council will need to make after learning some of the funds collected to widen Route 99 can be used for improvements at Exit 94.
Because the cost of the Rt. 99 project was rising faster than funding was accruing, the town already decided to use the estimated $4 million for some other transportation project. However, Virginia Department of Transportation has limited the town to using the funds in an area along the eastern section of Route 99, so there were questions whether the funds could be used at the interstate exit.
According to VDOT, those funds can be used to improve the exit. Preliminary estimates to construct a crossover from the eastbound lane of Route 99 onto the northbound ramp from westbound Route 99 is $400,000. The proposed improvements were included in VDOT’s plan for I-81 improvements until budget shortfalls prompted the transportation department to start cutting projects from the plan in 2008.
Councilmen were mixed in their thoughts on using money intended for the town on a project that normally would be the state’s responsibility.
Councilman Morgan Welker said he would be opposed to using town funds on a state project.
"I can’t see us paying for that when it’s really the state’s responsibility. I don’t think it would be our best use of the money," Welker said. He said he could support the use of town funds on the project if the cost was a quarter of the estimate.
When council asked town staff to check into the possibility of using some of the funds on the exit, council thought the estimated cost was around $50,000.
New Councilman Joseph Goodman said the visibility and limited length of the northbound entrance ramp at Exit 94 is such that it promotes "kamikaze driving." He said he thinks people need to be able to safely use that exit "if we’re looking to promote the town through that exit."
Robert Bopp agreed with Goodman. He said he would like to be able to provide a safer entrance into the town from I-81. However, he questioned why the cost is so high and suggested that staff ask VDOT for a breakdown of the costs.
Councilman Joel Burchett Jr. also agreed with Goodman. "If we wait for the state to do it, it’s never going to get done," he added.
Burchett pointed out that the state is considering increasing the speed limit on the interstate to 70 miles per hour. That will only make the northbound ramp even more dangerous, he said.
Mayor Jeff Worrell agreed with some of the councilmen that the exit is a safety issue, but he also agreed with Welker that using some of the urban funds on the exit wouldn’t be "the first best use of our money. If we start funding state projects, we’ll never get done."
Welker said he thinks visibility is more of an issue at the onramp than the length of the ramp. He suggested staff find out how much it would cost to have more trees removed in order to increase visibility.
Town Manager John Hawley agreed with Welker that the "level of comfort" for motorists entering the northbound lanes of I-81 would be improved if better visibility were provided.
Councilman H. M. Kidd said he agreed with Welker and Worrell that the town shouldn’t "foot the bill" for state projects.
Worrell asked that a VDOT engineer be invited to attend council’s work session later in the month to discuss the matter.
"I think this is a tremendous opportunity for us to make improvements on Route 99," the mayor said of the urban funds.
Goodman asked that staff also find out from VDOT the probability the state will make improvements at the exit and, if so, the time frame for those improvements.