Virginia’s top transportation official paid a visit last week to help clean up local roadways and talk about projects to ease traffic congestion in the Fredericksburg area.

“The last year has been exciting,” Virginia Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine told a group of area residents at James Monroe High School Thursday evening. She donned an orange-and-yellow vest to promote work zone safety and the Virginia Department of Transportation’s roadside cleanup program, Adopt-a-Highway.

Earlier in the day, she and more than 400 volunteers cleared roadside trash in Spotsylvania County, filling up 352 trash bags, she told the crowd of about 30.

But Valentine and the other officials visited Fredericksburg primarily as part of a string of meetings to provide details of the state’s proposed Six-Year Improvement Program, which will set funding for fiscal years 2020 through 2025.

The secretary touted a list of key statewide transportation highlights from the past year, including an agreement for expansion of the Hampton Roads tunnel; expansion plans for the Port of Virginia; agreements for express lanes projects for interstates 66 and 395; and progress on the widening of Interstate 64 between Richmond and Hampton Roads.

That work—and more than 3,800 other projects—is included in the state’s Six-Year Improvement Program, which has a proposed $21 billion budget, $16.4 billion of which will go to road work. The rest will go to rail and public transportation projects. The Commonwealth Transportation Board is scheduled to vote on the SYIP in June.

The Fredericksburg meeting also included details for the state’s Interstate 95 corridor study. The recently approved study will focus on the interstate corridor from Thornburg to Springfield. It follows the Interstate 81 study, which spawned a new revenue stream and pumped millions of dollars into projects for other interstates, including I–95.

Valentine said the I–95 corridor study is one of 21 other new studies Virginia will undertake in an effort to improve transportation, something she said is crucial to the state’s economy.

The proposed SYIP is $200,000 less than the current plan, but nearly $7 million more than the FY 2017-2022 budget.

Even with that increase in funding from two years ago, the secretary said there isn’t enough money for Virginia’s infrastructure needs, pointing out that the state received the most applications yet in the third round of its Smart Scale program, but had 45 percent less funding than the first round.

She said transportation leaders will be looking for ways to get the money needed to improve the transportation infrastructure, including roads and other modes such as the railroad.

Valentine highlighted the Long Bridge project, a proposed expansion of the only bridge for trains between Virginia and Washington, D.C. That bottleneck is considered a root cause of rail congestion, something that directly impacts Fredericksburg-area Virginia Railway Express commuters.

Some say rail congestion also leads to more backups on roads by discouraging commuters from taking VRE. The secretary called the project a “critical piece of the infrastructure” in the state’s transportation system.

VDOT’s acting Fredericksburg District head engineer Michelle Shropshire highlighted local transportation work, including the I–95 express lanes extension, Rappahannock River crossing projects and the Courthouse Road interchange and widening projects in Stafford County.

“It’s an exciting time,” said Shropshire, who also asked for “patience” with several years of work zones along the interstate corridor ahead.

Placards showed maps and details of key local and state projects, many of which Valentine and the other transportation officials highlighted during the meeting.

One long string of maps showed plans for the express lanes extension, covering about 10 miles in the I–95 median from North Stafford to U.S. 17 in Stafford County.

Congestion problems plagued the original merge area, at State Route 610 in North Stafford, after the lanes opened in 2014. Those problems led to a call to extend the lanes south.

The first extension took the lanes about two miles farther down the interstate.

Work is underway on the second extension, a $500 million project scheduled to be finished in 2022.

The express lanes extension will coincide with the Rappahannock River crossing projects, which will add three lanes in each direction in the median of I–95 from U.S. 17 to State Route 3. The aim of the projects is to separate local from through traffic.

Work on the southbound project has started, with completion slated for 2022. Work is set to start on the northbound project in 2020 and finish in 2023.

Shropshire also pointed out area projects that will get underway sometime next year, such as the Mudd Tavern Road widening in Thornburg, a companion project to the I–95 interchange rebuild there; a new I–95 overpass on U.S. 17 in Spotsylvania; and a new commuter parking lot in Spotsylvania.

She closed with a few details on the upcoming Chatham Bridge rehab project, which VDOT recently moved ahead by a year. Work on the $22 million project, which will close the bridge during construction, is expected to start in the summer of 2020 and be completed in early 2022.

Several residents spoke during the meeting’s public comment period. Their comments covered a range of topics and suggestions, from adding charging stations for electric vehicles throughout the state to adding lanes on I–95 by simply restriping areas where the pavement is wide enough to do so.

Charles McDaniel, chairman of Hilldrup moving and storage, repeated his belief that there are infrastructure needs and a funding problem in the state. He said there is one simple way to find more money for transportation: raise the gas tax.

“Everybody pays,” said McDaniel, who also asserted that the interstate should be considered a federal and state responsibility, not a local one.

Valentine assured him that transportation leaders will be focusing on finding a better way to pay for the work.

“That is an issue we’re looking at this year,” she said.

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Scott Shenk: 540/374-5436 sshenk@freelancestar.com