Parts of U.S. 220 in Henry County are narrow and curvy, studded with traffic lights and lined with commercial developments. Local leaders have said its condition hinders commercial development. Photo by Dean-Paul Stephens.

State lawmakers have set their sights on improvements to one of the routes connecting southern Virginia to North Carolina, a decision that supporters believe could have positive economic implications by improving travel between the two states.

Lawmakers have opted to move forward with the so-called Southern Connector Study, which will identify ways to improve the U.S. 220 corridor, the gateway between Southern Virginia and North Carolina’s Greensboro economic hub.

The study’s namesake is a decade-old proposal for a new road that would serve a similar but streamlined function to the current U.S. 220. However, the revised budget approved last week by the General Assembly emphasizes changes to the existing U.S. 220 instead. 

The study the legislature authorized will look at improving roughly 7 miles of U.S. 220 between the state line and U.S. 58 in Henry County. The study area also includes the U.S. 58/Virginia 641 interchange and the town of Ridgeway, where U.S. 220 connects with Virginia 87, according to Jason Bond, a spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Transportation.

Local backing for improving the existing road represents support for any effort to fix the problem, even if it isn’t an entirely new bypass around Martinsville.

“We acknowledge the Southern Connector isn’t going to happen, and we’re confident there’s a path forward that will enhance the region’s ability to help strengthen the Virginia economy,” Brennell Thomas, president of the Martinsville-Henry County Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement. “That’s why we are so encouraged by this new budget language, and we look forward to working with VDOT on the next steps.” 

Gov. Glenn Youngkin is set to sign the budget on Thursday.

Among regional business leaders and officials, it’s a welcome piece of legislation, according to Jim Frith of Frith Construction, a Martinsville resident and one of a group of entrepreneurs and local officials concerned with U.S. 220, the portal between the state’s Piedmont region and North Carolina’s Greensboro metropolitan area. 

Local officials present a united front regarding efforts to move forward with studying possible improvements to U.S. 220 in lieu of alternate solutions.  

“We embrace the idea of improvements to the 220 corridor,” Frith said. 

U.S. 220 suffers from its age, he said.

“The section of road we are talking about was the original north-south road that carriages used to drive on that ultimately changed into a highway,” he said. “The southbound lanes in particular have been a real problem for decades and decades.” 

Henry County Administrator Dale Wagoner agreed. 

“It is narrow and curvy in places,” he said. “There are a lot of parts with traffic lights and commercial developments. It really hinders commodity flow.” 

Others are even more candid in their criticism of the road. 

“If you’re traveling up Route 220 in North Carolina, you drive along a broad, limited-access road — until you hit the Virginia border and the road becomes a nightmare,” the chamber’s Thomas said in an interview. “The road narrows, it’s hilly, it’s curvy, and driveways open directly onto it. It’s even worse heading southbound.” 

According to Frith, any effort that ends with improvements to commercial travel across the state line would be counted as a victory, particularly if U.S. 220 improvements prove the more cost-effective solution. 

He said he believes U.S. 220 improvements will ultimately prove a good-enough solution, even if it isn’t perfect. 

“We’re in support of improving the roads.” he said. “Great shouldn’t derail good. Good will help immensely.” 

The matter underscores the significance that travel plays in interstate commerce, Wagoner said.  

“Infrastructure is important for growth,” he said. “It just so happens, Henry County is at the North Carolina line. We kind of sit in what I would describe as the center of the hourglass in transportation.”

Wagoner’s use of “hourglass” was intentional. He describes the current U.S. 220 as the bottleneck separating the Henry County and Greensboro regions. 

“There is a bottleneck in transportation, it just so happens to be in Henry County,” Wagoner said. “If we can fix that bottleneck, that center of the hourglass, it will open up not only Henry County and Martinsville to the whole southeastern market — it will open up to other markets.” 

Wagoner said as Martinsville, Henry County and the surrounding areas continue to grow, the U.S. 220 corridor will be something that officials will need to address. He is far from alone in his concerns. 

“There has been a lot of work on this behind the scenes,” Wagoner said, adding that he believed local business interests are what alerted state lawmakers to this largely local issue. “There is a group of local business leaders within our community that has really grown.” 

Their advocacy led to the Southern Connector proposal around a decade ago, according to Frith. The Southern Connector was a theoretical route that would run adjacent to U.S. 220 and would avoid current issues with U.S. 220, while possibly creating others.

The cost was estimated at the time at $745 million. 

The Southern Environmental Law Center urged VDOT to scrap the plan, calling the project “a poor use of taxpayer dollars” and decrying its potential impacts on the environment. 

An environmental impact study of the Southern Connector identified four potential minority-owned residential areas that could be affected, as well as other environmental points of concern such as noise pollution and adjacent residential properties. Report researchers also looked at seven endangered species that were in the project area and could be threatened.  

That 2021 study is now largely moot, as local voices have shifted away from support for the Southern Connector. 

“The Southern Connector would have been great,” Frith said. “But the improvements [to the U.S. 220 corridor] will be very, very good and perfectly fine.” 

According to Frith, while the Southern Connector is a popular solution, most feel that simply investing in U.S. 220 improvements is a more practical solution. Frith said he welcomes the possibility of the state choosing to explore this avenue as a solution. 

“The legislature and the governor is really giving this some strong attention,” he said. “It shows a lot of support and we’re very thankful for that.” 

Dean-Paul Stephens is a reporter for Cardinal News. He is based in Martinsville. Reach him at