DANVILLE, Va. (WDBJ7) Travel Route 29 between Danville and Greensboro, and you might notice signs that read "Future Interstate 785." The markers have been posted along the highway, off and on, for more than 20 years.
Leaders announced the Interstate designation in 1998, with fanfare and promises of economic renewal.
"Our economic professionals now have a better opportunity to market our communities," then-Danville mayor Linwood Wright told an assembled crowd at a June 1998 press conference.
Even today Pittsylvania County's economic development director, Matt Rowe, says 785 could transform southern Virginia.
"It's a game changer, really," Rowe told WDBJ7.
So why, more than two decades after it was first announced, is 785 still a "future" Interstate?
While the highway doesn't exist in our region yet, work is happening in North Carolina to bring 785 closer to the Commonwealth.
"The project is somewhat committed," explained Mike Mills, division engineer for the North Carolina Department of Transportation's District 7.
When completed Interstate 785 will run about 50 miles, from Interstate 85 in Greensboro to U.S. Routes 58 and 360 in Danville. 7 miles of the highway have already been completed. The most recent segment opened in 2017, connecting with Route 29 just north of Greensboro.
Last week the North Carolina Department of Transportation allocated $247 million to fund an additional 16 miles of construction. Mills says the state will acquire property for the project in 2024, with construction tentatively scheduled to start in 2027.
"Right now we've got it scheduled in our state transportation improvement program," said Mills.
When the new segment is finished, Interstate 785 will come within 15 miles of the Virginia border. Mills says the remaining portion of the highway, between Reidsville and Danville, will require less work than the segment that received funding last week.
"All-in-all that section is probably the easier part to construct," Mills said of the Reidsville to Danville stretch.
785 north of Greensboro will essentially be an upgrade of the existing Route 29. Contractors will have to widen shoulders, increase the height of some bridges, and cut off access to some businesses and private homes.
The finished Interstate won't be a dramatic change from what drivers see today. The biggest difference will come in how the road appears to the outside world. Rowe says having a red, white, and blue Interstate shield on the map will make southside more competitive when trying to attract new employers.
"It is very important to certain businesses," said Rowe, who is in the process of trying to recruit a large manufacturer to build a facility at the Southern Virginia Mega Site at Berry Hill. Many of the companies Rowe hopes to speak with are using "site selectors" to scout out potential locations.
"One of the boxes that site selectors are trying to check off is 'are you on an identified, Federal Interstate?" Rowe said, adding that he talks to employers every month who mark Pittsylvania County off their short list because of the area's distance to an Interstate.
"A lot of times you won't even get a call, you won't even know that you were in the game, until afterwards when somebody says 'well, because you were not on a Federal Interstate, we did not select you to go on the short list'," said Rowe.
That's because of a perceived lack of connectivity. Michael Craig, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Lynchburg, says companies want direct access to major highways, airports, and rail lines.
"An Interstate is probably going to be a good signal that Danville is connected to broader infrastructure networks," Craig said.
Southern Virginia, according to Craig, already has good connectivity and other assets like colleges and the low cost of living companies want, but having an Interstate shield on the map could give the area an advantage over other communities.
"This whole, total package that they can offer, where the Interstate is the final piece of the puzzle, that could make a difference for sure," Craig said.
That's why Rowe and other southside leaders are eager to see 785 completed. If North Carolina's work stays on schedule, the highway could be signed to the Virginia border in the next ten years.
"I think it's a tremendous gesture from our partners in North Carolina that they're making these improvements to make Danville, Pittsylvania County, and southern Virginia connected," said Rowe.
In the Commonwealth, VDOT says upgrades at the Elizabeth Street intersection and a few other "spot" improvements will be needed along Route 29; but aside from those changes the corridor already meets standards necessary to carry the 785 designation, possibly giving southside its first Interstate by the end of the next decade.