1st Quarter 2006
March 8, 2006 - Staunton News Leader
Grassroots Vs. Asphalt
The Shenandoah Valley is too beautiful, too historic, too valuable to allow Star Solutions and the Virginia Department of Transportation to turn it into an eight-lane hell. Frankly, the traffic problems and congestion we face on I-81 pale in comparison with places like I-265 between Virginia Beach and Norfolk and just about anything starting with "I" in Northern Virginia.
That's why we're glad that citizen activist groups are beginning to find focus and gain traction in opposing any wholesale widening of the 365 miles of I-81 through Virginia between Tennessee and West Virginia.
One of those groups, the Shenandoah Valley Network, was profiled recently by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The group has gained support from local governments, Civil War and other history aficionados, and tourism officials in opposing the wholesale widening of I-81. They're doing the kind of lobbying that ought to be done, and we wish them luck.
Could I-81 be widened in places? Certainly, especially around metropolitan areas where traffic flows from the cities onto the Interstate. Widening I-81 in these areas might actually make for safer driving - although we would point out that it doesn't guarantee anything.
With a finite supply of petroleum in the earth and ever-increasing fuel prices, we must turn away from the paradigm of asphalt and freeways that seemed to be the way of the future during the Eisenhower administration.
Rail - passenger and freight - may not be an instant fix for the problems we face on I-81. But viewed realistically (and with patience), they are worth waiting - and fighting -for.
As we have said, we are not in crisis on I-81, especially not here in the Shenandoah Valley. Whatever "hot spots" there may be around places like Harrisonburg, Roanoke and Salem can be handled situationally. We don't need to nuke our back yard to get rid of the ants. |||
March 8, 2006 - Staunton News Leader
"If you build it, they will come."
Editorial cartoon by Jim McClosky - Staunton News Leader, 3/8/06 |||
March 6 - Richmond Times-Dispatch
Valley group drums up support
for alternate proposal on highway
by Calvin R. Trice, Times-Dispatch Staff Writer
Monday, March 6, 200,6 Harrisonburg -- Citizen activists in the Shenandoah Valley decided last year that the state-approved plan to widen Interstate 81 is too massive, expensive and potentially disruptive to country life.
The Shenandoah Valley Network outlined their improvement ideas last summer and have since mounted a grass-roots challenge to the $13 billion project that would separate truck from car traffic on the western Virginia highway.
Since the fall, the network has lined up support for their plan, dubbed Reasonable Solutions, from local governments, General Assembly representatives and tourism groups, among others.
Civil War heritage officials touted that low-impact alternative on Wednesday as a way to improve I-81 without despoiling important battlefields, as they fear the accepted plan would.
A spokesman for Star Solutions, the business consortium the state chose to widen the highway, said the alternative doesn't do enough to account for growth. And the General Assembly this year rejected efforts from the valley delegation to halt talks with Star or limit the scope of the project.
But the valley activists believe they're gaining momentum out west. When the Virginia Department of Transportation starts holding hearings on the widening project this year, the local activists believe their strength will show.
"We really will be working to educate local residents on the deficiencies in the [Star] plan," said Megan Gallagher, who has coordinated the network of citizen groups behind the alternative plan.
Star has proposed adding lanes to I-81 for most of the highway's 325-mile length in Virginia and financing the project with tolls. The Valley Network prefers spot improvements for congested areas, stepped-up law enforcement for safety and diverting the highway's swelling freight traffic from tractor-trailers to rail.
Audiences along the highway have been very receptive to the idea, said Rosemary Wallinger, a Shenandoah County resident who's part of a citizens' forum that monitors growth and development where she lives.
"We believe that we've hit on everyone's needs," said Wallinger, who lives in Mount Jackson. "It's minimum impact and maximum coverage."
The General Assembly has so far not been very receptive to the alternatives. Del. C. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, introduced a nonbinding resolution asking VDOT to halt negotiations with Star.
The resolution included an alternative plan that incorporated some ideas from Reasonable Solutions with others that Gilbert thought would be politically viable, the delegate said.
Though it had the support of many western Virginia lawmakers, other delegates were reluctant to present VDOT with what became a growing list of suggested restrictions on the project, Gilbert said.
"Those details and minutiae bothered some members of the Rules Committee," Gilbert said of the panel that eventually tabled the resolution.
Tyler Bishop, a spokesman for Star Solutions, said many of the Reasonable Solutions ideas are good starting points for addressing the traffic volume on I-81. But they don't do enough to accommodate projected growth in the long term, Bishop said.
"Those improvements won't replace the need to widen the interstate, and that need is clear," he said.
Traffic on the highway tripled in the last 20 years to about 60,000 vehicles per day. Tractor-trailers make up half the volume at times in some places, and growth rates are projected to bring traffic to a standstill at peak times by 2025.
Gallagher said her group will continue advocating their plan. At the very least, Reasonable Solutions has for the first time in years managed to get local residents in the valley talking about smaller-scale improvements compared with the Star plan.
"I think we're making some real headway in proposing an alternative," she said.Contact staff writer Calvin R. Trice at email@example.com or (540) 574-9977. |||
March 4, 2006 - Winchester Star (Opinion Section)
Seeking a Balance. . . On I-81, Battlefield Protection
As president of an advocacy group such as the Civil War Preservation Trust, James O. Lighthizer is expected to be precisely that - an advocate. Thus, when Mr. Lighthizer addressed the proposed widening of Interstate 81 vis-a-vis the region's Civil War battlefields in apocalyptic terms Wednesday in New Market, we were hardly surprised.
His remarks at the Bushong Farm, site of the 1864 Battle of New Market, were boilerplate. The expansion of I-81 to eight lanes, a possibility under consideration by the Virginia Department of Transportation, would be "a travesty," he said. Such a project would "obliterate a whole valley," to the extent that the Shenandoah would "never heal," much as it did following its desecration by Gen. Philip Sheridan's Union army 142 years ago.
Such rhetoric may capture a few headlines, but, in the end, it only diminishes the essential debate on the uncertain balance between needed - yes, needed - interstate improvements and the preservation of national treasure.
Adding to this uncertainty is that, as of now, no expansion plan for the crowded highway is etched in stone. As few as two or as many as eight new lanes may be added to the roadway. And, as even VDOT has noted in a draft environmental impact statement, substantial core battlefield acreage - from 1,212 acres for a two-lane expansion to 1,622 acres for eight lanes - stands to be affected by new road-building.
Frankly, these latter numbers are startling. But, as Howard Kittell, executive director of the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation, explained Friday, large segments of battlefield property will be disturbed by the grading and drainage work required to widen the interstate. This, Mr. Kittell said, is particularly true at Third Winchester, where the core battlefield abuts I-81, and at Cedar Creek, where a substantial reconfiguration of the I-81/I-66 interchange would dramatically impact the fields where the forces of Phil Sheridan and Jubal Early clashed in the Valley's climactic battle.
As an alternative, Mr. Kittell's foundation - along with the governing boards of Augusta, Rockingham, and Shenandoah counties and myriad town councils - has endorsed a plan cobbled together by the Valley Conservation Council. Dubbed "Reasonable Solutions to Interstate 81," this six-point plan recommends a widening of the road within existing rights of way and calls for "implementation of a rail component for a balanced transportation system."
Mr. Kittell readily recognizes the need for "safety and operational improvements" along the interstate. He considers the road-building component of this plan doable, particularly from Staunton to the West Virginia line where the valley is widest - and where all the major regional battlefields are located.
Implicit in this alternative blueprint is resistance to the potential transformation of I-81 into what Mr. Kittell calls a "truckway." The plans offered by VDOT and the STAR Solutions consortium with which it is negotiating do not simply account for normal traffic growth, Mr. Kittell says, but instead envision a substantial increase of trucking along Virginia's western spine.
"Then," he adds, "it's not just a matter of battlefields, but of air quality, noise, and all the attending development. Do we want any part of the Shenandoah Valley to be like Breezewood (a major truck terminus along the Pennsylvania Turnpike)?"
That question is not unreasonable, speaking as it does to the need for both sobriety in this debate and a balanced approach to the resolution of I-81's obvious deficiencies. At stake is the reconciliation of the Valley's essence and heritage with the necessity of making the interstate a safer and more efficient artery for travel.
Could this possibly be achieved by adding a lane in each direction without the acquisition of many more rights of way? Howard Kittell, who once worked as a planner for the Michigan Department of Transportation, would like to think so. And so, apparently, would many others.
But, in the pursuit of such a balanced solution, adherents would be advised not to cast their arguments in cataclysmic terms. To equate the needed expansion of a highway with an arrant disregard for the legacy bequeathed by our forebears, as some have done, is counter-productive. Our bequest, our legacy should not be minimized or overlooked. Posterity deserves not only battlefields, but also safe highways on which to reach them. |||
Defrauded but not fooled.
Editorial by David L. Foster, Executive Director, RAIL Solution
We don’t have to let them get away with it. Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) has pulled a fast one on us. In the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for Interstate 81, VDOT has structured the analysis to favor their desired outcome, a massive I-81 expansion.
Construction of additional lanes and vast interchanges would displace homes and businesses, destroy forests and farmland, and disrupt historic battlefields. Travel disruption over 15 years would discourage tourism. The $10 billion project could be financed only through tolls on cars and trucks. Tolls on I- 81, while other north/south Interstates remain free, would adversely and differentially impact business, growth, jobs and economic activity in Western Virginia.
Here’s what they did:
• Selected to do the study with a firm that had been part of STAR Solutions, the Halliburton consortium that proposed a border-to-border rebuilding of I-81 to 8 –12 lanes.
• Set up rail to fail. Three prior Virginia-funded studies (all cited in the DEIS) show clearly that freight diversion from highway to rail is unlikely in corridors of less than 500 miles. Nevertheless, VDOT refused to look beyond the 325 miles of I-81 in Virginia, to an effective Knoxville – Harrisburg rail route.
• Picked instead a rail plan upgrading 13 short sections of track in Virginia,
many not even in the I-81 corridor, averaging only a mile or two each. Used this inadequate alternative as the benchmark for consideration with all the highway options.
• Found minimal truck diversion and concluded that rail would not be a factor in determining the scope of highway expansion.
• Announced the findings in the DEIS Executive Summary supporting a border-to-border widening of I-81, and referring to the study’s technical appendices to support their conclusions. Repeatedly told people the Executive Summary is all they need to read.
• Filled the technical appendices with data, charts, and tables that give the appearance of research, but in fact are riddled with errors and shortcomings.
• Used false information to misrepresent in a prejudicially negative way the characteristics of the Norfolk Southern rail line paralleling I-81 in Virginia.
• Failed to consider rapidly rising fuel prices or the chronic shortage of truck drivers when forecasting trucking demand in the future, resulting in an inflated need for new capacity on I-81.
Here’s what VDOT should have done with your money:
• Made a realistic determination of the future capacity required in the I-81 Corridor.
• Made an honest side-by-side comparison of the environmental and economic costs of providing that new capacity on the highway and on the parallel rail line.
• Backed the lowest-cost, lowest-impact package of improvements providing that capacity.
After all, isn’t that what an environmental impact study is for? But the DEIS does none of these things.
There is broad-based public support for a meaningful role for rail in the future I-81 Corridor. Fifty local governments and planning organizations have passed resolutions in support of rail. People recognize that relying on ever more lanes of pavement to solve each problem of congestion and growth is not smart. Or even possible.
Virginians don't have to repeat the ruinous policies of the West Coast and Northeastern U.S. at great cost to our economy and environment. We can pioneer, for our state and nation, a balanced transportation system that includes a core network of high-capacity rail lines, instead of vast new highways, as our primary means of moving freight. Railroads can do the job with one-third the pollution and five times the energy efficiency.
Although STAR Solutions' dedicated truck lanes are gone from the DEIS' recommendations, I-81 would still be subject to a massive rebuilding from border to border in Virginia. Some of it would be six lanes wide, but almost two-thirds would be eight lanes or more.
A more sensible solution would be a plan of measured improvements, targeted at capacity chokepoints and safety problem areas. These could begin now, not wait for a 15-year construction plan to be finalized. They could be paid for incrementally like all other Virginia highway projects, not through tolls. They could be put out for competitive bids to encourage participation by local contractors and to save taxpayers money, not guaranteed exclusively to STAR. At the same time rail upgrades, funded with federal loans, could increase capacity for handling through intermodal freight in the Corridor, extending the life of highway improvements and limiting their scope and urgency.
What should you do now?
Tell VDOT that the people's views matter. Dominated by highway people who have spent their entire careers building roads, VDOT wants to go on building roads. The highway engineering and construction lobby is a powerful ally. Many state and federal politicians are pushing hard, too. Help counter these entrenched interests. Speak out. Go to a public hearing when they are announced, send comments to VDOT in writing, or post them on VDOT’s website: www.I-81.org
But most importantly, you must do this now, during the public comment period. If we let VDOT exclude a viable rail option now, a major highway expansion may soon be approved and underway. We may never ever get another chance.
David L. Foster
Executive Director, RAIL Solution
342 High Street
Salem, VA 24153
March 2, 2006 - Staunton News Leader:
"You all don't think I'm an attractive option?"
Editorial cartoon by Jim McClosky - Staunton News Leader, 3/2/06 |||
March 1, 2006 - Staunton News Leader Editorial
The debate about widening Interstate 81 to handle increases in traffic feels like it has been going on forever, but it has really only been about four years since it came to the forefront of public awareness.
Back in 2002, there was only one major player in the debate - Star Solutions, the consortium of contractors with their roots in the Halliburton/Kellogg Brown Root family of companies. Star Solutions came forward with a proposal to use the Public/Private Transportation Act to widen I-81 within a span of 15 years at a fraction of the cost (in time and money) than the Virginia Department of Transportation could if it attempted to do the project on its own. Tolls on commercial trucks would partially fund widening the 325 miles of I-81 that link Virginia with Tennessee and West Virginia to eight lanes - four lanes in each direction.
At the time, the Star Solutions plan seemed like the most reasonable solution to traffic problems that appeared likely to overwhelm I-81 within a few years. The only real opposition to the plan came from a group called Smart Solutions, a coalition of trucking industry figures, private businesses and members of some chambers of commerce who objected to the idea of tolling only trucks and the wholesale widening of I-81. Other objections were raised later, citing possible environmental impacts. Questions were also raised about whether rail could be a component of the plan.
Eventually a second contender - Fluor - came forward to challenge Star Solutions with a bid to add a single extra lane to both the north- and southbound lanes; to pay for it, both cars and trucks would be tolled. Fluor's plan was eventually culled from the mix - and then there was one - Star Solutions, again.
Today, the debate goes on; should I-81 be widened for its entire length, or should it be done selectively at "choke points" around metropolitan areas? Should we dash the whole idea and seek a heavier investment in freight rail? What will the invasive work on I-81 do to the quality of life in the Valley? Is there a better way? It's a healthy debate and it should not be quashed simply because we are left with only one contender standing.
Early on, we gave a qualified endorsement to the idea of widening I-81, but today we are not so certain it is the way to go - not in any wholesale fashion, at any rate.
Let's keep the debate alive. Let's not rush to plow and pave. If you'd like to discuss the topic, call our TalkBack line at 213-9222 and share your thoughts. |||
March 1, 2006 - Daily News Record - Harrisonburg
Is The Valley Endangered?
Preservation Group Sounds Alarm As I-81 Upgrade Looms
By Jeff Mellott
The Shenandoah Valley, with the prospect of a multi-lane improvement of Interstate 81, is listed among the Civil War Preservation Trust’s most endangered battlefield sites in the nation.
Last year, the preservation trust included the battlefields of Cross Keys and Port Republic on its most endangered list. This year, the trust expanded it to include the region from Winchester to the area around Harrisonburg.
Traffic whizzes along Interstate 81 behind a battlefield marker and picnic area at the New Market Battlefield. A preservation group lists the Shenandoah Valley among its most-endangered battlefield sites.
The preservation group publishes its annual list to draw national attention to the pressure it says historic sites are under from increased development.
"The Shenandoah Valley is one of America’s most hallowed regions," said James Lighthizer, president of the preservation trust.
"The battles that were fought there are what give the Valley much of its identity — they are what makes the Valley unique. The proposal to widen I-81 not only threatens to destroy much of the Valley’s hallowed ground, it also threatens to steal the Valley’s identity," he said.
Rockingham Memorial Hospital’s planned move to a site about 3 miles from Cross Keys, and a plan to develop a "loop road" in the same area, put that battlefield on the list last year, the trust’s list says.
Gravel operations near the Port Republic battlefield at Lynnwood helped put that field on the endangered list.
Those threats remain, so those battlefields remain on the list released on Tuesday in Washington, D.C.
Interstate 81 does not pass through Cross Keys or Port Republic, but it does split a number of other Civil War battlefields.
Those sites are at Winchester, Kernstown, Cedar Creek, Fishers Hill, Toms Brook and New Market.
The designation, says Jim Campi, spokesman for the trust, will make a greater national audience aware of the impact of proposed improvements to the interstate. The battlefields issue, he says, has largely been a state and local one.
The Virginia Department of Transportation plans to hold public hearings later this month on the environmental impact of those improvements.
Among the proposals is a plan from STAR Solutions that calls for tolls on trucks to help pay for widening the interstate from four to eight lanes, and perhaps as many as 10.
A coalition of local governments and environmental, preservation and citizens groups, including the Civil War Preservation Trust, supports a more modest proposal called "Reasonable Solutions."
The coalition’s plan would widen the highway at congested spots, add truck lanes only in places that need them, and use rail transportation to remove some truck traffic from the highway.
The proposal also includes stepped-up law enforcement on the highway and advocates keeping the improvements within the existing boundaries of the road.
The Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation is also concerned what effect the proposed highway improvements would have on historic sites.
Two years ago, the foundation estimated that the STAR plan would put more than 1,000 acres of battlefield property under interstate pavement, double what is under I-81 now.
"We are pleased that the Civil War Preservation Trust has joined the chorus of voices from throughout the Shenandoah Valley — local governments and community organizations — calling for a reasonable solution for improving I-81," said Foundation Executive Director Howard Kittell.
In endorsing the Reasonable Solutions proposal, the foundation recognized the need for improving safety on the interstate, Kittell said. He added that the STAR Solutions plan would induce more traffic.
Contact Jeff Mellott at 574-6290 or firstname.lastname@example.org–|||
February 13, 2006 - Roanoke Times
PUSHING THE LIMITS: A proposed change in the Environmental Protection Agency's air pollution regulations could put the Roanoke Valley over the line.
by Tim Thornton
Already nearly four years into a program aimed at reducing ozone -- a greenhouse gas and a major component of smog -- the Roanoke Valley may have particulate air pollution problems, too.
Proposed changes in U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules for urban areas could put the Roanoke Valley, Richmond and Bristol at or above regulatory limits for airborne particles, even though the proposed changes aren't as significant as EPA staff recommended.
"We know it's an issue out there that we're right on the border of," said Mark McCaskill, senior planner with the Roanoke-Alleghany Regional Planning District. "We've been keeping an eye on it."
Particulate air pollution comes from many sources, from factories, power plants and automobiles to windblown soil. Smaller particles pose a bigger risk, according to the EPA.
Fine particulate matter -- 2.5 microns in diameter or less -- is associated with a number of respiratory and coronary health problems, including premature death. For reference, the period at the end of this sentence is about 600 microns across.
The average adult breathes about 11 cubic meters of air in a day, barring stressful exertion. Current standards limit exposure to fine particulates to a daily average of 15 micrograms per cubic meter of air, and a maximum 65 micrograms per cubic meter in a 24-hour span.
But an EPA staff report says meeting current standards for particulate exposure would still allow "thousands of premature deaths per year." About a third of the country's population is breathing air that doesn't meet those standards.
Roanoke, Salem and Bristol are barely within the current standards for average annual exposure. Conditions in much of the rest of Western Virginia are unknown because there are no monitors to record particulates.
According to John Bachmann, the EPA's associate director for science, air in at least 116 counties across the country violates the standards. Under the proposed new regulations, 191 counties would violate it. The EPA estimates those numbers will decline as the administration's Clear Skies program takes effect.
"Armed with these innovative clean-air policies and the best available science, we will continue to improve air quality and public health," EPA administrator Stephen Johnson said last month. "This proposal is yet another step to ensure the American people have cleaner air and healthier lives."
An EPA staff report estimated risks from small particulate matter would be reduced by at least 10 percent if the annual limits were reduced by 1 microgram per cubic meter and up to 30 percent if the limit were reduced by 3 micrograms.
The EPA proposal changes the allowable daily exposure from 65 micrograms per cubic meter to 35. It does not change the annual limit.
Areas that exceed the new requirements could become subject to programs similar to the one the Roanoke Valley is involved in to combat ozone. Local governments signed a compact with the EPA in 2002 to keep the federal government from imposing restrictions already imposed on Northern Virginia, Richmond and Hampton Roads. Those restrictions include emissions tests on vehicles, stringent emissions standards for industry and specially formulated paints, cooking sprays and deodorants.
According to McCaskill, many of the things in the anti-ozone plan should also help reduce particle pollution.
EPA spokeswoman Enesta Jones wrote in an e-mail that areas that violate particulate matter regulations may have to require stricter controls on emissions from industrial facilities and automobiles, and consider the particulate problem in transportation planning.
The valley's fight against ozone pollution has been going well, according to Paul Truntich, Roanoke's environmental administrator. But at least some of the credit for that goes to good fortune.
"A lot of it kind of depends on the climate and the weather," he said. Those elements won't help with particulate pollution.
The final decision on the new rules is scheduled for September. The comment period closes April 17. |||
February 10, 2006 - Richmond Times-Dispatch
Be It Resolved
Legislators from districts along the I-81 corridor recently denounced the Star Solutions plan to widen the highway. Any frequent traveler of the road can attest to the need for its improvement. The statement by the seven Delegates and one Senator did not advance toward the goal of a better I-81.
Growing traffic, excessive speeding, and frequent wrecks mar I-81 one of the nation's busiest byways for tractor-trailers. To help fix this problem, VDOT has chosen Star Solutions for a public-private partnership that would create four extra lanes to accommodate big rigs. The trucks would pay tolls to finance the additions.
Citing his constituents' "outrage at the prospect of paying tolls on an eight-lane I-81," Delegate Todd Gilbert and seven colleagues offered a non-binding resolution to combat the problem. They want to (1) stop talks with Star Solutions, (2) build targeted improvements at choke points, and (3) add 10 new state troopers to the I-81 beat.
Unless Gilbert's constituents drive semis, they have no need for outrage. The law imposes tolls only on trucks using the new lanes. Private passenger vehicles using the existing lanes would not pay. Yet a toll will have to factor into the equation somehow.
The Star Solutions project also has been subject to a full and open debate. Of the available options -- none of which offered perfection -- VDOT chose this partnership as the best way to provide a fix. Congress also has appropriated funds to build the new lanes.
The Commonwealth has come too far in its negotiations with Star Solutions to stop now. VDOT projects that by 2025, congestion on the road may grind traffic to a halt during peak hours. New troopers are needed, and fixing choke points is a priority. What the legislators have put on the table -- with no indication of where to find the money to pay for it -- does not equal a plan.
The Star Solutions fix is not perfect. Yet it does offer the best of available options. Gilbert and his colleagues want more conversation. Reality calls for action. |||
February 3, 2006 - The Roanoke Times
Legislators' Resolution Seeks to Steer I-81 Talks: The proposed nonbinding resolution seeks to end negotiations with Star Solutions.
By Michael Sluss
RICHMOND -- A group of legislators who represent portions of the Interstate 81 corridor want the Virginia Department of Transportation to pull the plug on negotiations with a consortium of builders that has plans to widen the traffic-clogged highway and create dedicated truck lanes.
Seven Republican lawmakers, most of them from the Shenandoah Valley, held a press conference Thursday to show support for House Resolution 143, which asks VDOT to halt negotiations with Star Solutions and pursue targeted improvements to the interstate. The
resolution is not binding, because VDOT is an executive branch agency.
Most of the lawmakers represent parts of the Shenandoah Valley. Del. Anne Crockett-Stark of Wytheville was the only Southwest Virginia Republican who attended the press conference and one of only two from the region who signed on as a co-sponsor.
The resolution's chief sponsor, Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah County, said his constituents "certainly do not want an eight to 12-lane monstrosity of a road running up and down the valley."
VDOT released a draft environmental impact study in November that concluded that I-81 won't need separate lanes for trucks throughout the corridor. But the interstate will need at least one new lane in each direction and two new lanes in much of the corridor, the study concluded.
Rockbridge County Del. Ben Cline said VDOT should consider addressing "choke points" on the interstate so that safety concerns along I-81 can be resolved.
Star Solutions spokesman Tyler Bishop said the state would be making a mistake by halting the negotiations."
For years, Virginians have waited for major improvements to begin on this deadly road," Bishop said. "Those improvements won't start anytime soon if negotiations are halted."
Bishop added that Star Solutions has always intended for the work to be phased, beginning with truck-climbing lanes, interchange improvements and other steps to ease congestion and improve safety.
House Majority Leader Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, disagrees with colleagues who want to stop the process.
"If you continue to throw out the good in search of the perfect, you'll never get I-81 improved," Griffith said.
Cline said he also has asked House budget-writers to include $1.9 million in new spending over the next two years to hire 10 additional state troopers to patrol along I-81.
"Additional troopers will provide necessary staffing to allow for more patrols and a safer highway," Cline said.
Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, embraced Cline's call for more troopers.Edwards has asked for $19.2 million to add 120 troopers to the interstate, but acknowledged he has little chance of gaining support for such a request. |||
February 3, 2006 - Daily News-Record
DELEGATES ADDRESS I-81 CONCERNS: More Modest Approach Urged
By Jeff Mellott
Harrisonburg -- According to Del. C. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, the future of Interstate 81 couldn't be more clear-cut.
"We don't believe a massive project is necessary right now," he said.
Gilbert and several other area delegates and state senators spoke after a press conference late Thursday in Richmond. Gilbert is the author of a resolution to stop the state's consideration of a massive project to improve I-81.
He is also the author of a bill to have 10 more Virginia State Troopers patrol the highway.
Gilbert is calling for a more modest approach to improving the interstate. The press conference showed how serious the delegation is about its approach to improving safety on the highway, he said.
The delegation, with the support of several local governments and groups, wants a plan that focuses on improving congestion points and adds no more than one lane in each direction. They also reject the idea of tolls, advocated in an earlier plan proposed by STAR Solutions.
The STAR Solutions plan, which would add several lanes in each direction, was created in 1994. The Virginia Department of Transportation hired STAR Solutions to examine the feasibility of building two additional truck lanes in each direction along the entire length of I-81 within the state.
The STAR proposal, Gilbert said, would affect the quality of life in the Shenandoah Valley. However, Gilbert stressed that he has no problems with STAR - only with what gets built.
"Once you build it ... there's no going back," he said. "There's only so much room in the Valley when you have mountains on both sides."
Gilbert is not alone. Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Mount Solon, introduced a bill in the Senate to replace the STAR Solutions with a plan calling for fewer lanes and emphasizing speed enforcement.
And Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, had earlier said that the STAR Solutions plan is unreasonable.
Meanwhile, Del. Matt Lohr, R-Broadway, has a proposal of his own - adding $50 to speeding fines. The money, he said, would go to the State Police to beef up enforcement on the interstate.
Lohr attended the press conference on Thursday.Lohr also said using rail to help improve safety on the highway is a viable solution - a concept Gilbert endorses.
"Hopefully," he said, "we can strike a balance between the road and the rail."
Whatever proposal comes out of the Assembly, Del. Steve Landes, R-Weyers Cave, has said the delegation will insist that the budget approved this year includes money for improving I-81.
"Interstate 81 has long been a problem for the citizens of western Virginia," Landes said. "We have a duty to these citizens to make it safer for them to travel."
Landes added that he opposes tolls.
"In rural Virginia, the interstate system is vital as the most time-
efficient means of getting around. Tolls that punish Virginia's families are not the answer," he said.
Mo' Money, Mo' Money
Del. Ben Cline, R-Lexington, offered a budget amendment to provide for the hiring and training of 10 more state troopers to patrol I-81. Cline's amendment would add $1.2 million in fiscal year 2007 and $700,000 in 2008.
"An important step toward enhanced safety on I-81 is addressing the runaway speeds that intimidate drivers and endanger lives," said Cline. "Additional troopers will provide the necessary staffing to allow for more patrols and a safer highway." |||
February 3, 2006 - Richmond Times-Dispatch
LAWMAKERS PROPOSE HALTING I-81 TOLL PLAN; SAY REGION 'OUTRAGED'
By Peter Bacque, Richmond Times-Dispatch Staff Writer
Eight state legislators want VDOT to dump a $13 billion plan to add toll-financed truck lanes to Interstate 81 in western Virginia."Citizens from Winchester in the north, all along the I-81 corridor to far Southwest Virginia, are outraged at the prospect of paying tolls on an eight-lane I-81 monstrosity, gouged out of our natural beauty and historic heritage," said Del. C. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah.
The General Assembly members have proposed a nonbinding resolution asking the Virginia Department of Transportation to stop negotiations with a road-building group about its plan to widen the congested highway by four lanes.
Breaking off talks with the Star Solutions construction consortium would delay relief for travelers on I-81, a spokesman for the group said."For years Virginians have waited for major improvements to being on this deadly road," said Tyler Bishop, reacting for Star
Solutions. "Those improvements won't start anytime soon if negotiations are halted."
Virginia truckers backed the legislators' efforts, saying that tolls would cost freight haulers $125 to travel the 325-mile highway, one of the nation's busiest truck routes.
According to VDOT, the agency is not committed to building separate toll lanes for trucks along the almost 40-year-old highway. And the deal could eventually fall through, noted VDOT spokeswoman Tamara Neale.
Instead of the Star Solutions plan, the legislators from the I-81 corridor urged that the Department of Transportation build "targeted improvements at chokepoints," such as hills and urban areas, to improve the highway's safety and capacity.
And for safety's sake on the crowded road, the legislators also called for spending $1.9 million to hire 10 more state troopers to patrol I-81.
Joining Gilbert at the Capitol Square news conference yesterday were: Dels. Benjamin L. Cline, R-Rockbridge; Clifford L. Athey Jr., R-Warren; R. Steven Landes, R-Augusta; Christopher B. Saxman, R-Staunton; Matthew J. Lohr, R-Rockingham; Anne B. Crockett-Stark, R-Wythe; and Sen. John S. Edwards, D-Roanoke.
By 2025, VDOT projects that traffic will come to a near standstill during peak hours on most of I-81, the economic spine of mountain-and-valley Virginia.Much I-81's pavement has reached the end of its useful service life, the highway agency says, and needs to be rehabilitated or rebuilt.
The state doesn't have the funds to do that in a reasonable time without using tolls to pay for the work.VDOT has about $130 million in federal and state money on hand for
improvements to I-81, including $125 million for truck lanes.
Traffic through the crucial corridor has tripled in the past 20 years, according to VDOT, growing from around 20,000 vehicles a day to nearly 60,000 vehicles a day in the Roanoke Valley and Winchester regions.
The road's design anticipated that only 15 percent of its traffic would be made up of trucks, but on some sections of I-81 the number of trucks nearly equals the number of passenger cars.Construction of I-81 started in December 1957 and was completed in December 1971. |||
January 19, 2005 - The Hook (Charlottesville)
Wrong haul? Group wants I-81 truckway derailed
BY CHRIS GRAHAM CHRIS@AUGUSTAFREEPRESS.COM
Not too far in the future, in some hotspots, Interstate 81 might swell to eight to ten lanes. And in a few areas, the roadway could widen to 12 lanes-- six in each direction, a vast Valley viaduct.
The expansion-- at a cost of about $13 billion-- would gobble up houses, businesses, and maybe even a Civil War battlefield or two.
And it would have tolls-- a powerful incentive for truckers and others to find alternate paths, such as nearby Route 29, the already crowded artery that passes through Charlottesville.
There's another catch-- in 30 years, it might have to be expanded again.
"If we allow a huge East Coast bypass to be built into our Mountain Valley topography, the impacts will be tremendous," says critic Rees Shearer.
Not the least of those impacts would be environmental. Additional lanes mean, obviously, more cars and trucks speeding up and down I-81 every day. The indirect effects of the additional traffic include more jobs and more population-- which will themselves exert pressure on the interstate highway system in addition to primary and secondary roads, schools, and fire and rescue services.
And then there's the impact on drivers' wallets. Truck tolls would run from nine cents to 37 cents per mile, a cost that could top $120 for a trucker passing through Virginia.
"A toll road," Shearer says, "would divert truck traffic to other highways and put businesses and industries up and down the corridor at risk."
Proposed by Star Solutions, a private consortium that's negotiating with the Virginia Department of Transportation for the lead role in overhauling the highway, the dramatic expansion has plenty of critics. Unlike most critics, however, Shearer believes he has a solution-- a rail solution.
Shearer's group is called quite simply Rail Solution, and its strategy would add just one lane of highway in both the northbound and southbound directions of I-81.
The core of the group's plan is a "steel interstate"-- created by adding an additional track and myriad overpasses along the existing rail line that already parallels I-81 in the Shenandoah Valley. The idea is to increase capacity, eliminate grade crossings, and bolster train speeds sufficiently to provide a freight-shipping alternative to the long-haul trucks that make up 29 percent of all vehicles traveling on Virginia's stretch of I-81.
"We want to keep I-81 toll free and make it compete against a higher-speed railroad," says Shearer. "That's adding a whole new transportation benefit to the mix. If you just widen the highway and keep rail as a substandard service, it's not adding anything. And you're going to have to do the same thing at some point in the future when congestion becomes an issue again."
The steel interstate would run from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania through Virginia to Knoxville, Tennessee-- and possibly on to Memphis and New Orleans. Shearer says that Virginia's portion would cost just over a quarter of the Star Solutions plan-- $3.5 billion-- while saving the environment and countless quantities of fuel and emissions by diverting about 40 percent of long-haul truck traffic from the roadway to the tracks.
However, VDOT has run some numbers-- and what it has come up with doesn't look encouraging for those who support a rail solution.
According to a draft environmental-impact statement released by VDOT last month, the steel interstate would divert fewer than six percent of trucks that currently use the interstate in Virginia-- at an actual price tag of not $3.5 billion, but $5 billion.
As rail advocates vociferously doubt the findings-- "We find it almost impossible to believe that VDOT is correct," says Shearer-- those in state transportation offices stand by them.
"Let's put it bluntly," says VDOT spokesperson Laura Bullock. "If rail would be profitable, private companies would be doing it already."
Indeed, the private sector doesn't appear interested-- if Norfolk Southern Corp. is any indication. The railroad has repeatedly indicated that it has no plans to upgrade capacity of its Shenandoah Line.
Yet Shearer wants to persuade the governments as well as the mammoth railroad to see things in a different light.
"In the last five decades-plus we have been spending our federal and state transportation subsidies on the interstate system," Shearer says, "with some significant money going toward airlines and ports authorities, but we have allowed railroads to flounder." And flounder they have.
"Passenger rail was abandoned and left to starve," says Shearer. "Freight rail had more profit all along, so it's been able to survive, but in the meantime, literally thousands of miles of track have been taken up."
Bullock points out that it would take a major shift in public policy for "public money to be used on private transportation, which is basically what rail is."
However, after a bi-partisan move backed by outgoing governor Mark Warner, the state recently began awarding $23 million annually for private railroad improvements-- as long as there are 30 percent matching funds from the owners-- and a clear public benefit.
To Shearer, such benefits are obvious-- and obviously wiser than spending billions on road widening. But VDOT disagrees.
"If you look at the traffic we expect on Interstate 81 in the year 2035, and you took every truck off the interstate, we would still have Thanksgiving weekend conditions every day of the year," says VDOT's Bullock, citing VDOT projections that 90,000 passenger vehicles would travel the I-81 corridor in Virginia.
"There would not be enough room out there for just cars," says Bullock. "And that's if you could take every truck off."
And, obviously, no rail option could remove every truck from the interstate.
"They couldn't," says Bullock. "You still have local deliveries, and deliveries on shorter trips, like between Harrisonburg and Bristol."
Folks at Rail Solution don't disagree. Trains and trucks are already "business partners," according to the group's literature. "Trains excel at long hauls, trucks at point-to-point delivery."
Still, there's that difference over the diversion-- six percent vs. 40 percent. One reason for the discrepancy, explains Trip Pollard of the Charlottesville-based Southern Environmental Law Center, is that the VDOT study serving as the basis of ifs impact statement had a design flaw: it studied only in-state traffic.
"What's needed is a look at a multi-state rail solution," says Pollard, who calls for a "corridor-wide" study.
Bullock concedes that the VDOT study didn't contemplate a multi-state solution.
"Our study is under the purview of the Federal Highway Administration," says Bullock, "and they have said this is a Virginia-only study, so we have to comply with the direction they've set for us."
To Pollard, such limitations doom the value of VDOT's research. "This isn't a Virginia problem," says Pollard. "It's a federal problem. It's a multi-state problem. And it's going to require the input of the federal government and states located up and down the I-81 corridor to get to a workable solution."
Already, 37 Virginia cities, towns, and counties along I-81-- Pulaski County's the biggest holdout-- have supported a comprehensive rail approach in any effort to upgrade I-81.
VDOT says that it has listened to transportation officials from several I-81 states to see what can be done across state borders to take the pressure off the interstate highway.
"The folks in these meetings recognize the benefit of working together," says Fred Altizer, program manager for the I-81 improvement project at VDOT.
Altizer says members of the working group have shared information about what their respective states are doing relative to I-81.
"One common thread that binds us is that 81 is one of those commerce corridors in the United States that feed a large portion of the population in terms of goods and services," says Altizer. "Each state has been more than willing to acknowledge that. We just don't have a mechanism to bring this to life right now."
One thread that binds many drivers is a fear of driving on such a truck-packed roadway. In 1998, a spectacular car-truck collision near Roanoke claimed seven lives-- including one set of parents in the infamous UVA baby-switch case. However, a civil suit filed in that case suggests that the car's driver was at fault.
Then there's the narrow width of the road. Designed in late 1950 to the '60s, I-81 is much narrower than newer interstates, with inner shoulders typically only two tire-widths wide, according to Bullock. Yet despite the trucks and the outdated design, I-81 may not foster widespread carnage.
Taking into account fatalities, injuries, and property damage, VDOT gives each of the state's interstates a "weighted crash score." The figure for I-81 is actually 42 percent below Virginia's interstate average. As for trucks, they constitute 29 percent of the vehicles on I-81-- and 29 percent of the crashes.
But there's another growing complaint: traffic.
Emmett Hanger, a state senator who represents a wide swath of the Central Shenandoah Valley in the Virginia Senate, thinks the problem needs no further study.
"There's too much traffic out there," says Hanger (R-Mount Solon), "and we have to do something. Obviously, a lot of money has been spent to this point, and almost any armchair observer, given a ride up and down Interstate 81 and about five minutes to think about it, would come to the same conclusions as the report.
"Anyone who has an appreciation for our lifestyle and the sensitive environment in Western Virginia would come to the same conclusion," says Hanger. "You don't want to overbuild, and yet there are places that need immediate attention."
Hanger's solution: one additional lane in most locations on both sides of the interstate.
"A lot of that can be done with very limited environmental impact and study," says Hanger, "because it can be accomplished within existing right-of-way." A further benefit from operating in the existing right-of-way is lower cost.
If things don't happen Hanger's way or with a "steel inters