Calls for improvement along Route 33 near Rawley Springs, Shenandoah Mountain

Published: Aug. 11, 2022 at 10:41 PM EDT
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ROCKINGHAM COUNTY, Va. (WHSV) - Drivers who have traveled along Route 33 West up Shenandoah Mountain and through Rockingham and Pendleton counties know it’s a drive with many sharp twists and turns.

The Virginia Department of Transportation has ideas for projects to address issues at the bottom portion of Shenandoah Mountain in Rockingham County, but funding remains a key issue of why things are not getting done, but one recent incident is leaving first responders demanding action.

“We’ve tried for years to have improvements made to the Virginia side. West Virginia made improvements to our side, now it’s Virginia’s turn,” Rick Gillespie, Pendleton County’s Emergency Services Coordinator, said.

“The problems are curves that are too tight and on a couple of the curves, the tractor trailers literally have to go left of center as they’re westbound to make it around the curves or get their trailer wheels caught in the rocks,” he said. “Both of which happen causing traffic delays causing accidents.”

According to VDOT, Rockingham County submitted a SMART SCALE application several years ago to fix these issues and began advertising for the project in the fall of 2021. The budget for construction was around $8.3 million.

Ken Slack, with the VDOT Staunton District, said only one bid came back then at about $10 million. VDOT held off, advertised again in February 2022, and again received another bid out of budget. VDOT and other agencies made adjustments to bring the costs down.

“We are looking at possibly adjusting it so it’s not as long, maybe about a quarter of a mile shorter,” Slack said. “Now the designs call for it to go from the bottom of the mountain to about the entrance of Switzer Dam, but it would still accomplish the same purpose and that is to improve three of the major sharp turns along that stretch of the roadway and also provide about a 1,000-foot climbing lane right around the middle of that project.”

The terrain in this area also poses construction challenges.

“You’re talking about a huge amount some 50,000 cubic feet of earth that are going to have to be moved as part of this project, so it’s challenging from a construction standpoint and from a traffic operation standpoint to get folks safely through that work zone,” Slack said.

Downed trees on Route 33 near Rawley Springs left one Pendleton County ambulance stranded on August 7 for about 40 minutes before the roadway was cleared. Thankfully, there was no patient in the ambulance as it was heading back to West Virginia from Sentara RMH, but that is making first responders ask, ‘What if?’

“Plan B would be, if it’s a critical patient, to radio in and attempt to get a helicopter, but that would not be an easy place to land a helicopter because of the tree canopy,” Gillespie said.

Crews could also return to a parking lot at the top of Shenandoah Mountain and try to radio for help, Gillespie said, or potentially go to a secondary hospital.

“That would be the one in Petersburg, West Virginia, or go around by Sugar Grove and make their way to Augusta [Health]. If it’s a critical patient, that patient might not have that amount of time left to wait to get to another hospital,” Gillespie said.

Slack said VDOT crews are constantly keeping an eye out for potential hazards, but some are difficult to remove.

“We do have to keep in mind that sometimes these [trees] are on private property whether its a farm, a business, a home, or in this case of Rawley Pike going up 33 on Shenandoah Mountain, you’re talking about the U.S. Forest Service,” Slack said.

Gillespie asked VDOT and has called on Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin to find the money to make the changes.

He said VDOT should use some of its money from the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which was the largest investment in U.S infrastructure in nearly a century. Virginia is expected to receive $7 billion for federal-aid highway apportioned programs.

“It’s an interstate commerce highway connecting two states. Many residents of Pendleton County spend their money in Rockingham County and work over there. It’s important for our ambulances to transport patients,” Gillespie said. “The highway has reached its life limit.”

Slack said this is a project VDOT and Rockingham County want to get done and it will try to advertise again for the Shenandoah Mountain project in 2023.

To report hazardous debris, you can call the VDOT Customer Service Center at 1 (800) FOR-ROAD.

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