Senator Kaine visits Harrisonburg to talk transportation project, mental health

Published: Aug. 10, 2023 at 8:42 PM EDT
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HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) - Virginia U.S. Senator Tim Kaine was in Harrisonburg on Thursday. He joined city leaders to tout a major roadway project in the city that was awarded more than $14 million in federal funds.

The money will allow the city to completely overhaul Liberty Street downtown.

“Today we’re recognizing a tremendous investment into the safety of our community, into our environmental sustainability and into the future of our downtown,” said Harrisonburg Mayor Deanna Reed. “Liberty Street as you know it will be reimagined so all users can comfortably and safely use it as they live, work, and play in the Friendly City.”

The Liberty Street project is part of Harrisonburg’s Downtown 2040 Plan. One of the two lanes on Liberty Street will be converted into a two way bike lane with a median to separate it from traffic.

“We want to build a transportation infrastructure that isn’t just about can we move more and more cars although that’s important but we want to build a transportation infrastructure that’s good for pedestrians, that’s good for cyclists, that’s good for public transit,” said Senator Kaine, a Democrat who represents Virginia. “You have some particular needs here because any university community with a lot of young people, some of whom have cars and some don’t, really should have a robust transportation network that gives people a lot of options.”

The money for the project comes from a RAISE grant funded by the bipartisan federal infrastructure bill.

“Communities, Richmond, Harrisonburg, any community, they thrive or they upon a foundation or an architecture of smart infrastructure,” said Kaine. “When a community, commonwealth, or country under invests in infrastructure it has huge consequences for everybody. Infrastructure is about economic growth, infrastructure is about connecting people and making their quality of life better.”

Harrisonburg was one of just 163 communities awarded a RAISE grant out of more than 1,100 applicants. One hope is that the project will help offset traffic congestion.

“I’ve seen this work in Richmond as well, if you do a better job of giving people public transit, cycling, and pedestrian options, then folks may want to drive on a day when the weather is bad but if the weather report is good why not use the pedestrian option?” said Kaine.

The project will also make a connection to the Bluestone Trail and improve intersections along Liberty Street. Kaine said it is much more than just a transportation project.

“If we can get people outdoors more that’s going to be good for mental health and it’s also going to be good for people’s physical health. Usually we silo things sometimes too much, a transportation project is over here but no, it connects to people’s health,” he said.

The city hopes to begin work on the project in 2026.

After talking about the Liberty Street project Kaine joined city leaders for a roundtable discussion with five of the six local organizations that received American Rescue Plan Act funds to improve mental health resources in Harrisonburg. The six organizations each received a share of $400,000 from the city’s ARPA funds.

During the roundtable discussion Kaine heard from the five organizations and learned about the different ways they are using the ARPA funds they received. Organizations like First Step, The Collins Center, and Strength in Peers outlined how they’ll use their share of the funds.

They also talked with Kaine about the mental health challenges that people in the community are dealing with. Kaine said that while the COVID-19 public health emergency is over its effects are still being felt when it comes to mental health.

“Kids that lost socialization opportunities, what does it mean to a kid that didn’t get to do the senior year on their sports team? They don’t get to do the prom or graduation or the homecoming the way that they had maybe looked forward to. Their family didn’t have such great internet connectivity so for them remote learning was not the same as being in person and there’s a deficit there,” said Kaine.

Kaine said kids in school aren’t the only ones whose mental health took a hit during the pandemic.

“How about seniors who love to have interaction but were living in congregate care facilities that didn’t allow visitation for a long time. How about anybody in recovery who really relied on a group to help them deal with recovery issues, yeah zooms are better than nothing but it’s not the same as being in the same room as people,” he said.

Kaine noted that drug overdose deaths had been on the decline before spiking back up during the pandemic.