4th Quarter 2006
Oct. 17, 2006 - The Roanoke Times
I-81 off K Street and on track
By Tommy Denton
Thanks to the instructive news coverage of Roanoke Times reporter Ray Reed, Rail Solutions has received due recognition as a splendid example of David-versus-Goliath democracy in action.
Formed some four years ago to oppose a massive widening of Interstate 81 in favor of shifting a greater proportion of the nation's shipping from trucks to trains, Rail Solution began as a small cluster of people opposed to what they saw as a destructive, wasteful rape of Western Virginia.
As Reed reported Sunday, those few advocates grew in number and influence, contributing eventually to major readjustments to plans for increasing capacity in the overwhelmed I-81 corridor. Once virtually dismissed by an impatient Virginia Department of Transportation, the rail option is now more likely to become part of the I-81 solution.
In fairness, the four-year debate has not always been conducted with unyielding respect for factual accuracy. The corporate juggernaut that sought to build a multitude of truck lanes, financed richly by tolls to reimburse its executives and stockholders, enjoyed the early momentum that comes from paying handsomely for favors in Washington's K Street corridors of influence-peddling.
In response, opponents -- including Rail Solution -- have fought back with figures, projections and speculations that were passionate and generally accurate but that also on occasion were, shall we say, flexibly applicable. The heat of public argument, especially when the stakes are high, has always contributed to a grudging acknowledgment of some hyperbole in the political discourse.
Even so, the long-term inefficiencies and damage in the form of environmental threats and the squandering of precious energy resources put the rail supporters on the side of the angels.
It's been an uphill battle to reverse the mind-numbingly bad idea to allow swashbuckling corporate construction giants to have their way with I-81. Born in the fevered imagination of U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, the separate truck lanes were Young's idea of a nationwide, federally mandated monument to, well, himself.
A consortium called Star Solutions -- headed by Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg Brown & Root -- jumped on the opportunity to propose a plan that would draw on federal money earmarked for I-81 upgrades, considered by Young to be a case study in building what he considered his legacy.
In the intervening years, although the state agency responsible for studying the upgrades initially dismissed a rail component to ease I-81 congestion, persistent advocacy by rail supporters, Roanoke state Sen. John Edwards and Gov. Tim Kaine fortunately has restored consideration of a rail option to the planning.
Realistically, the projected $13 billion cost of a fully upgraded I-81 makes small potatoes of the available relative pittance of $141 million in the federal earmark, plus a $28 million state match. Sadly, much progress at the state level faces gloomy prospects because of the irresponsible resistance among the legislative leadership in the Virginia House of Delegates to provide the resources essential to the commonwealth's transportation, and thus economic, future.
For now, some hope glows on the horizon in a merging relationship between the state and Norfolk Southern to chart a course toward easing overcrowded highways by moving significant amounts of interstate-clogging truck traffic to far more efficient freight trains.
In an ideal world, everyone would agree on objectives, purposes and interests, and all would go swimmingly. But it's not ideal, and politically sensitive bureaucratic state agencies and oligarchical railroad corporations have different interests. Occasionally, the larger public interest may get misplaced.
Just as the study by VDOT concluded, incorrectly, in its preliminary Tier I report that rail would not provide significant relief, Norfolk Southern -- understandably but with less than a robust sense of corporate citizenship -- has been somewhat secretive and officious with the taxpayers expected to lay a disproportionate share of track to its profitability.
Without exhortations in the last four years from the likes of Rail Solution and the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charlottesville, among others, the corporate juggernauts could already have cut their swath from Bristol to Winchester and wreaked havoc with communities, ecologically sensitive areas and some historical sites such as the Civil War Battle of Cedar Creek at the northern edge of the Shenandoah Valley.
Bless those public-spirited "nuisances" so essential to democracy.
Denton's column appears in the Sunday and Tuesday editions of The Roanoke Times. |||
Oct. 15, 2006 - Roanoke Times
If freight is switched from trucks to rails along Interstate 81, Norfolk Southern says it will need more funding to meet the demand.
By Ray Reed
Ralph Waldo Emerson described life as a self-evolving circle that rushes outward on all sides to new and larger circles.
He might have been talking about Roanoke's up-and-down life with the railroad.
Today, that life is looking up: A shortage of truck drivers, clogged highways and increasing diesel prices are making railroads look better to shippers.
Norfolk Southern Corp. says it can ride the crest of this wave but it needs more public funds to improve its rails and cars.
The railroad is helping state officials analyze the cost and benefits that would accompany those improvements. They're hoping the study will lead to switching freight from trucks to rails along Interstate 81.
Strategic site then, now
Roanoke traces its beginnings in 1882 to a fortuitous location midway on a rail line that connected coalfields to ports, and to Northern markets.
Roanoke's role — and its railroad jobs — diminished during the late 1980s as Norfolk Southern Corp. reshaped itself, in part to capture a bigger share of Southeast-to-Northeast freight movement.
Now the ripples from the world marketplace may be rising up to renew Roanoke's role.
Norfolk Southern's planners were eyeing a pattern more than five years ago of increasingly favorable conditions for intermodal shipments — hauling merchandise in containers.
Three years ago those conditions looked so good the railroad took a new approach to business: It asked for government money to raise its tunnels so double-stacked containers — holding clothes and electronics from Asia — could pass from Norfolk to Columbus, Ohio.
That money came through: $90 million in federal funds and $22 million from Virginia for the route NS has named the Heartland Corridor. The railroad expects construction to be finished in three years.
NS has a similar — and intersecting — vision for a route it calls the Interstate 81 Corridor.
Freight from the south, including Mexico, could make its way to the Northeast by the I-81 corridor. Some of it does already.
Traffic on both corridors would pass through Roanoke and the intermodal yard NS says it wants to build at Elliston.
For those rail shipments to increase, and perhaps slow the growth in truck traffic on I-81, NS wants more government money.
"Public investment is required," said Sarah Corey, an NS director of strategic planning in Norfolk.
"The amount of investment required is more than NS can do on our own," Corey told the state's Commonwealth Transportation Board at its September meeting.
The board makes policy-level decisions on where transportation dollars are spent, including from the tax-supported $23 million-per-year Rail Enhancement Fund that was tapped for the Heartland Corridor.
On Wednesday, the board decided to include results of the rail study in its future decisions about widening I-81.
The study, to be completed next summer, also could lead to a decision on more state funds for NS.
Until August, NS and Virginia's Department of Rail and Public Transportation were pursuing separate studies of the I-81 corridor.
NS was hiring a consultant to help it update previous studies of the I-81 corridor, because of recent changes including the price of gas and a deal between NS and Kansas City Southern to share a 300-mile rail line connecting to Shreveport, La., on the Gulf Coast.
The Department of Rail was hiring a different consultant to help it carry out a legislative mandate to study how much truck traffic could be kept off I-81 if public funds were invested in rail.
According to a letter written by James Hixon, an NS vice president, the idea for combining the studies emerged during discussions at the August meeting of the Rail Advisory Board, a governor-appointed panel.
NS proposed, and the state accepted, a plan for sharing the findings of the two studies.
Their joint goal is to figure out how many trucks can be diverted from I-81 onto rail and at what cost, said John Friedmann, vice president of strategic planning for NS.
"We've told the state that we could do operational simulations to try and figure out what level of truck diversions we could accommodate for a given investment," Friedmann said. Computer models would be used for the simulations, he said.
Under the agreement with Virginia, NS will focus its study on deciding which of three rail routes through Virginia can be improved most economically.
One of those routes might require a new rail right of way from Front Royal to Culpeper, replacing a section of track from Manassas to Front Royal that dramatically slows trains on NS' main Southeast-to-Northeast route.
The study also would evaluate those routes on a multistate basis from Tennessee to Pennsylvania, a broader picture than Virginia state officials are authorized to examine on their own.
A third point emerged as well: NS will examine hauling the entire truck, not just a container, to relieve the demand for fuel and drivers. If that concept were to take hold, it could require the purchase of a type of rail car that's rare in NS' stable, as well as extensive improvements to tracks through Virginia.
The state agency's role in the study will focus on how much government money can be obtained for the NS upgrades, and from what sources — state, federal and private investments.
It also will evaluate other economic aspects of any publicly funded improvements, as well as fuel prices' impact on the railroads and trucks.
The rail study has the element of speed in its favor.
It will look at a five-state corridor in a year or less, while adding long-distance lanes to I-81 is several years away because Virginia is required to complete a two-tier environmental impact statement required under the National Environmental Protection Act.
"Rail improvements will be studied independent of the NEPA process," said Richard Walton of the Virginia Department of Transportation's environmental planning section.
Oct. 15, 2006 - Roanoke Times
Rail Solution recognized
By Ray Reed - 981-3351
They're an example of democracy in action, say members of a group that wants to keep influencing decisions about how people and freight move through the Interstate 81 corridor.
Rail Solution started four years ago as a few rail advocates in Southwest Virginia who opposed adding truck-only lanes to Interstate 81.
Today, Rail Solution is known from Bristol to Winchester for persistent efforts to persuade counties and towns to oppose the truck-lanes concept advanced by the builders' consortium Star Solutions.
Rail Solution is recognized in Richmond, too.
One member, Michael Testerman, led its lobbying effort for legislation that requires state officials to study how much I-81 freight can be shifted from truck to rail.
In meetings last summer with Gov. Tim Kaine and the state's top transportation officials, the group learned the legislated study will be done jointly by Norfolk Southern Corp. and the state Department of Rail and Public Transportation.
They also heard Kaine instruct state officials to find quicker ways to fix I-81's safety problems and to get the most benefit possible out of rail routes in the corridor.
Their state and local efforts converged on Wednesday when the Commonwealth Transportation Board, meeting in Roanoke, adopted a resolution that will include the rail study's findings in future decisons about I-81. They hope it will mean more freight will move by rail and fewer lanes will be added to the highway.
"This is an historic landmark of cooperation" between NS and the state, said Dave Foster of Salem, Rail Solution's executive director.
"That a citizens' advocacy group has gotten this far is nothing short of amazing," Foster said, recounting endless hours of work by its members against state- and federal-level lobbying and publicity conducted by Star Solutions.
Star's biggest backers were Halliburton Corp. and Koch Industries, two of the nation's largest corporations.
"Skeptics told us we could never stop Star," Foster said.
Rail Solution alone may not have stopped Star; Congress appropriated only $100,000 of the $800,000 the consortium lobbied for as startup money toward its $13 billion I-81 concept.
In addition, the federally required environmental study for widening I-81 discovered in its early stages that truck-only lanes wouldn't work nearly as well as predicted.
Opposition was strong, too, from truckers and manufacturers who said the tolls Star wanted on truck lanes would hurt their business.
Many local governments wanted more rail improvements in an I-81 package. Rail Solution volunteers led by Rees Shearer of Emory worked that angle hard by writing letters to editors and appearing at meetings to describe the negative environmental impacts Rail Solution saw in the Star Solutions plan.
Rail Solution adopted the environmental arguments from other activist groups it has allied itself with in the I-81 corridor, including historic preservations groups, Civil War battlefields preservers and smart-growth advocates.
Rail Solution claims to have 1,300 participants, and it accepts tax-deductible donations through a Richmond-based human rights group, the Virginia Organizing Project.
"We have over 20 associated groups that we are allied with in the corridor and work closely with," Foster said.
More than 40 towns and counties passed resolutions that favored moving freight by rail.
According to state officials, the publicity angle is where Rail Solution succeeded.
Although Foster said Rail Solution had a big role in getting NS and state officials to work together in studying ways to upgrade rail along I-81, state and NS officials see it differently.
"Since we have been working with the commonwealth for quite some time on I-81 and rail's involvement, it would not be accurate to say that Rail Solution was the catalyst for getting Virginia and NS together," said Robin Chapman, spokesman for the railroad.
"While we have been working quietly on our proposals, we have appreciated that Rail Solution has been keeping the public debate going," Chapman said.
When the General Assembly passed its bill ordering the I-81 study last spring, "we had already begun a study to update our numbers on the I-81 study we had performed a couple of years ago," Chapman said.
The Department of Rail and Public Transportation agreed with the NS view. Although the agency met with Rail Solution "to let them know how the commonwealth would proceed on this study," an agency spokeswoman said, "the agreement to undertake the study was developed between the commonwealth and Norfolk Southern."
Regardless of the details about Rail Solution's role, state officials acknowledge its presence.
"They're getting information and supplying information," said Laura Bullock of the Virginia Department of Transportation. "We continue to work with them." |||
Oct. 15, 2006 - Winchester
Reality On I-81, ‘green lights’ but no ‘blank checks’
Given the fiscal conditions confronted by the Virginia Department of Transportation — namely little to no money for major road-building initiatives — Wednesday’s unanimous vote by the Commonwealth Transportation Board to scale back plans for improvements to Interstate 81 represents a return to reality.
The message sent by the state, via the CTB, couldn’t be any clearer: Richmond will do what it can to make traveling on I-81 a bit more palatable, but the notion of a one-size-fits-all expansion of the 323-mile ribbon of blacktop will not happen anytime soon, if ever. In other words, dedicated truck lanes the entire length of the road in each direction are out; hill-climbing lanes for 18-wheelers, extension of on- and off-ramps, and installation and renovation of guardrails are in.
Even such modest improvements are estimated to cost in the neighborhood of $400 million — money VDOT doesn’t have, though Congress did appropriate $140 million toward these ends last year. Still, these dollars are a far cry from the $13 billion price tag placed on the STAR Solutions proposal to fully widen the highway from Winchester to Bristol.
Needless to say, the state doing what it realistically can to enhance the safety of I-81 travelers suits certain Virginians just fine. One is Trip Pollard, senior attorney from the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charlottesville, which has opposed the one-size-fits-all strategy from the git-go. Calling the CTB vote “a step in the right direction” during a telephone interview Friday morning, Mr. Pollard expressed relief that VDOT was given “green lights” for modified improvements, but not a “blank check” for widening and expansion.
“This more nuanced approach is a better fit for the problems we have [on I-81],” he said. “We would consider this the better way, even if we had more money.”
Pleasing as well to Mr. Pollard’s way of thinking was the board’s determination to further study the use of rail to divert trucks from the crowded artery. Originally built to handle 15 percent truck traffic, the highway now sees as much as 40 percent of its usage in big rigs at peak hours.
In conjunction with sorely needed safety enhancements, Mr. Pollard would like to have seen a much greater emphasis on encouraging localities to improve their own street networks, so much the better to keep local traffic off the interstate. “For less money,” he said, “we can help I-81 and the communities along it.”
But even this, we maintain, would cost the state dollars it doesn’t have. Hence, the utter necessity of tolls, a possibility the CTB did not take off the table for I-81. Any and all improvements must be paid for in some fashion or form. Short of a modest hike in the state gasoline tax, user fees (i.e., tolls) are as good a way as any — and perhaps the best way — to raise this revenue.
In this vein, we agree with James A. Davis, Shenandoah University president and CTB member, that all tolls raised on I-81 should be dedicated solely for that highway’s improvement. In fact, in concert with an idea advanced by former Gov. Gerald Baliles, the commonwealth perhaps should consider enacting a statewide system of tolls on its interstate roadways.
The point is this: If Virginia is truly serious about upgrading its transportation network, then it must somehow find the cash to do so. Obligating those who use the roads the most to pay for their improvement and upkeep is the most equitable way possible to fund such an endeavor. |||
Oct 15, 2006 - Bristol Herald Courier - Editorial
A Band-Aid for I-81
Virginia transportation officials agreed last week to put a Band-Aid on the worst stretches of truck-clogged Interstate 81.
The selected improvements – including climbing lanes on steep grades – will make some areas safer. But this isn’t a long-term solution to the interstate’s crowding issues. A cure still eludes.
Yet, there is much to praise in the latest round of decision-making by the Commonwealth Transportation Board. First and foremost, it appears the $13 billion STAR Solutions proposal is finally dead.
The STAR plan – favored by some of the business community and by Richmond opinion shapers because it followed their favorite script of public-private partnership – was universally despised by those along the interstate’s route. Local communities from Bristol to Winchester recognized the plan for what it was: an abomination that would have left an eight-lane-wide asphalt scar across some of the state’s most scenic countryside.
A diverse group of environmentalists, local government and business leaders, rail enthusiasts and Civil War history buffs who feared that historic battlefields would be paved over raised their voice in unison against the STAR plan. Those voices were heard.
The Transportation Board deserves credit for moving away from this massive widening scheme – although fiscal reality almost certainly influenced the decision. Federal funding to make the interstate a test site for separate truck lanes never materialized and the Virginia Legislature failed to come up with an agreement to fund transportation work anywhere in the state. The STAR plan lingered, but the money wasn’t there.
Instead of the big fix, the Transportation Board agreed to spend $100 million in federal highway funds to make urgent safety improvements. It’s only a down payment. State officials estimated the highway needs $400 million in safety upgrades now.
State lawmakers should find the money to fund the rest of the safety fixes. This isn’t a nicety; it’s a necessity.
But the state must think beyond the short term. Even if the full $400 million is invested in improvements, the road will remain choked with more tractor-trailers than it was intended to carry. And it is this heavy truck traffic that makes the road such a white-knuckle ride.
At last week’s meeting, the Transportation Board blessed a scaled-back form of the STAR Solutions plan – STAR-lite, if you will.
The Board also agreed to a comprehensive, multi-state study of shifting freight from road to rail. This is a significant victory for rail proponents, who have long argued that rail only makes sense if it is considered regionally rather than in Virginia alone. The study should produce a more accurate picture of the potential to divert freight to rail.
Left out of the conversation was the Coalfields Expressway, which would connect Interstate 81 in Tennessee to Interstates 77 and 64 in West Virginia. The Coalfields Expressway could take some of the pressure off I-81 by providing an alternative route north for through trucks, but it must be built first. Like all other road projects in Virginia, the Coalfields Expressway is a hostage of the failed vision of state lawmakers who couldn’t agree on a long-term funding source for transportation.
The ultimate solution for I-81 likely will be a blend of rail, widening work and alternatives, like the Coalfields Expressway. Vision and money are needed if the state plans to do more than put a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. |||
Oct. 12, 2006 - Roanoke Times
STRATEGY INCLUDES TRUCK-CLIMBING LANES
By Rex Bowman
ROANOKE -- Slow-moving trucks on Interstate 81 could soon have more
lanes to climb hills, keeping them out of the way of cars and their
The Commonwealth Transportation Board yesterday ordered a series of
short-term fixes, including up to a dozen new truck-climbing lanes,
to the highway's traffic problems, while keeping tolls on the table
as a way to possibly pay for the four-lane highway's eventual
widening. The board also agreed to study rail improvements as a way
to move freight off the highway and onto trains.
Increasing I-81's capacity and safety could ultimately cost billions
of dollars, and yesterday's board action, with its emphasis on short-
term solu- tions, marks a retrenchment by state transportation
officials who had once pondered a $13 billion plan to add four lanes
along the highway's entire 325-mile length.
The state, however, does not have the cash.
Even the short-term fixes approved yesterday are underfunded: The
Virginia Department of Transportation has $100 million in federal
money to spend on the proposed climbing lanes, but the agency
figures building the lanes at 12 critical spots will cost $366
million. The short-term plan also calls for longer on- and off-ramps
at some spots, which would cost an additional $50 million.
"Truck-climbing lanes and ramp extensions alone will cost more than
$400 million, and we don't have that kind of money today,"
Transportation Commissioner David S. Ekern said. "But we will
maximize available funds and put as many of these improvements on
pavement as possible."
The transportation department is determining which climbing lanes
should be built first. Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer, the
chairman of the board, said some of the climbing lanes could be
complete in two years.
Meeting in Roanoke, the board agreed that any future plans to add
lanes along the interstate will assume that some truck traffic can
be moved off the road by the improvement of Norfolk Southern
railroad tracks running through Virginia.
The decision capped a nearly three-hour meeting in which residents
and business leaders, mostly from western Virginia, urged board
members to study rail improvements as a way to alleviate traffic on
the major commercial artery, which runs through Virginia from
Bristol to the West Virginia line north of Winchester. Trucks
account for 40 percent of the traffic on some stretches of the
interstate at certain times.
Martha Orrick, a Montgomery County resident who said she lives next
to a railroad track in Elliston, said, "There's nothing more I want
to see than more trains coming down that track, because I know I'll
be safer driving on I-81."
The state Department of Rail and Public Transportation anticipates
it can complete a study of the cost and benefits of improving rail
along the I-81 corridor by next summer. |||
Oct. 12, 2006 - Associated
TRANSPORTATION BOARD OKS STUDY OF USING RAIL TO CUT I-81 TRUCKS
By Sue Lindsey
ROANOKE, Va. - The Commonwealth Transportation Board on Wednesday
approved a study of ways to take trucks off of Interstate 81 by
transporting more freight by rail, but also endorsed going forward
with a study that calls for widening the highway.
In approving completion of a study that calls for adding one or two
lanes in each direction, the board agreed to a suggestion by member
Jim Bowie of Bristol to take into account how many tractor-trailers
likely would stop using the truck-laden highway by greater movement
of containers by rail.
Numerous citizens who addressed the board before its vote urged it
to delay endorsement of the study that calls for widening, saying
global warming and higher fuel prices are likely to curtail highway
use in the future.
"Adding lanes is old thinking," said Sarah Nunneley, a retired
physician who moved to Rockbridge County three years ago.
Several board members expressed reservations about the study, but
were satisfied that Bowie's proposal would enable them to revise the
"This will move us ahead ... years faster," Bowie said.
The board did follow the Department of Transportation's
recommendation to put aside a plan to widen the 325-mile interstate
to eight lanes and create truck-only lanes requiring tolls, although
it left open the possibility that tolls could be assessed.
Leaving in the option for tolls gives the state "maximum
flexibility" for funding highway projects, said Secretary of
Transportation Pierce Homer, chairman of the board.
State Sen. John S. Edwards, D-Roanoke, told the board that two
General Assembly studies had shown it would be cost-efficient to
make rail improvements. A $500 million investment would take away
500,000 of the 5 million trucks a year that travel the highway, he
The board endorsed a study by the state Department of Rail and
Public Transportation and Norfolk Southern Railway of improvements
that would be needed to a 500-mile rail corridor that extends beyond
Virginia's borders _ from Chattanooga, Tenn., to Harrisburg, Pa.
The study will begin soon and should be completed by next summer,
according to Jennifer Pickett, a spokeswoman for the state agency.
George Lester of Salem was among many speakers who urged use of
rails to reduce I-81's truck traffic.
"Go as far as you can to move that cargo by rail," said Lester, who
said he lives near the interstate's right of way.
The board endorsed a package of safety improvements to the highway
that included spending $100 million in federal funds on truck-
climbing lanes and another $40 million on safety measures such as
extended entrance and exit ramps. The money must be matched with 20
percent state funding.
"We simply need to do a better job of protecting our travelers on
Interstate 81," Homer said. He noted that 29 Virginia colleges and
universities line the highway.
While the safety improvements are considered short term, Homer said
it would be two years or more before truck-climbing lanes could be
Several citizens urged practical steps, such as designating staff to
go to accident and construction sites to divert traffic and putting
up signs warning against traffic violations.|||
Oct. 12, 2006 - Roanoke Times
REVIEW OF I-81
An environmental study will assess the effects of moving freight from truck to rail.
By Ray Reed
Amendments based on citizen comments about Interstate 81 led to easy
approval of an environmental review Wednesday by the Commonwealth
One amendment ensures that a study of switching freight from trucks
to rail in the I-81 corridor will be added to the environmental
document next summer after the multistate analysis is complete.
The action cleared the way for faster safety improvements and truck-
climbing lanes on hills so Virginia can use $140 million in federal
Other changes adopted Wednesday mean the board will have a voice in
deciding, later, whether I-81 will get more lanes in the future.
Activist groups were pleased.
"These are huge improvements," said Trip Pollard of the Southern
Environmental Law Center.
Findings from the rail study, the activists hope, may show that I-81
won't need all of the six- and eight-lane capacity that the
environmental study recommends.
Michael Testerman of Rail Solution said including the rail study's
results in the final environmental document "is exactly what we
wanted." Rail Solution has acquired a high profile on I-81 issues
with the General Assembly, governor's office and Virginia Department
Further, a decision on whether to add lanes to the entire 325 miles
of I-81 will remain in the Virginia board's hands, to be decided in
years to come. Activists said the original environmental document
would have cleared the way for state and federal transportation
officials to push for construction of those lanes.
Environmental groups and rail advocates had raised a unified set of
objections to the resolution they expected, as late as Wednesday
morning, that the board would adopt.
Those objections said in part that approving the environmental
document while the rail study is just getting started could cause
its predicted vehicle counts on I-81 in future years to be off
target. The study is being done by Norfolk Southern Corp. and
Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation.
Opponents also said the board was in too big a hurry, wanting to
approve the environmental document that gave blank-check approval
for adding four or more lanes to I-81 in order to qualify for the
federal funding of short-term safety fixes.
Activist groups successfully encouraged people to shower those
objections onto board members via e-mail, letters to the editor and
That campaign's results could be seen in several amendments proposed
by board member Jim Bowie of Bristol to the draft version of the
resolution approving the document.
Those amendments caused the activists' objections to almost
evaporate. But not completely.
Pollard said the environmental review, done by VDOT and a
consultant, still does not adequately address air pollution
Also, Pollard said, the review does not look at traffic on local
roads near I-81 that might be improved more cheaply to handle
commuters and business vehicles. It doesn't attempt to connect with
localities' land-use planning, either, he said.
And Rees Shearer, another member of Rail Solution, said the group
will watch the rail study to see if it comes close to reaching the
group's goal of diverting 60 percent of freight shipments from truck
About 30 people spoke to the board before it discussed the
One of them, Lorinda Lionberger of Franklin County, is a former
member of the transportation board. She said that when trucks and
faster cars maneuver around slow-moving vehicles in the right-hand
lane, I-81 is a dangerous highway, particularly in the rain.
Even if 50 percent of trucks were removed from the highway, she
said, the dangerous situation still would exist. Adding a third
lane, however, would let slower vehicles use the right-hand lane
while faster ones could operate more safely in the other two lanes.
Lisa Tracy, a Lexington resident who said she once lived near a
large highway in the Northeast, said the environmental review needs
better traffic projections based on declining use of oil supplies. And, she said, "added lanes do not guarantee a safer trip."
Steve Chapin, identifying himself as a Roanoke County resident, said
I-81 needs to be improved. Railroads continue to set records each
year for hauling intermodal freight containers, "and yet, trucks
continue to increase on I-81."
Martha Orrick of Elliston said she lives beside the railroad tracks
where Norfolk Southern proposes to build an intermodal yard to
handle the kind of freight that might be diverted from I-81, and she
said seeing those containers on trains would make her feel safer
when using the highway.
But, she said, the board should make sure the project's
environmental impact has been analyzed along with its impact on
people in the community.
Mark McCaskill, speaking for the staff of the Roanoke Valley-
Alleghany Regional Commission, said the valley faces a new air-
quality problem because of particulate pollution.
"We are right up to the threshold" where limits on growth might be
imposed on the valley, McCaskill said.
He recommended that places where truckers stop to rest or sleep be
equipped with electric devices that heat their interiors so the
trucks don't have to run on idle all night, spewing diesel exhaust.
McCaskill also recommended prohibiting truckers from idling in areas
along I-81 where they now often pull onto the shoulders of ramps to
rest at night. |||
Oct. 12, 2006 - The Winchester Star
RENOVATIONS SCALED BACK
VDOT: Construction could take place within 2 years
By Sarah A. Reid
The Commonwealth Transportation Board voted unanimously on Wednesday
for a scaled-back Interstate 81 improvement program that could still
At the board's monthly meeting in Roanoke, commissioners directed
the Virginia Department of Transportation to implement safety
improvements along the highway, which extends for 325 miles through
The safety improvements include dedicated hill-climbing lanes for
trucks, the extension of on- and off-ramps, the installation and
upgrading of guardrails, and interchange modifications.
Construction on some of the safety improvements could take place
within two years, according to a VDOT statement. The improvements
will be ranked, based on safety needs.
"Truck climbing lanes and ramp extensions alone will cost more than
$400 million, and we don't have that kind of money today,"
Commissioner David Ekern said in the statement. "But we will
maximize available funds and put as many of these improvements on
pavement as possible."
Congress appropriated $140 million for I-81 projects last year, with
$100 million dedicated to truck climbing lanes, VDOT spokesman Laura
The board also directed state transportation agencies to continue
studies of widening the highway and using freight rail to divert
some truck traffic off the road.
The highway study will expand the Tier 1 Draft Environmental Impact
Statement that many groups and citizens opposed this year.
That study gave the CTB several options to relieve congestion on I-
81 into 2035. The options ranged from doing nothing to expanding
some sections up to eight lanes and adding railroad improvements.
In September, the board was advised by VDOT to drop the idea of
tolled, dedicated truck lanes, which were proposed as part of the
Tier 1 study.
Dedicated truck lanes were not mentioned in the resolution passed on
Wednesday but tolls were. The board decided to expand I-81 by no
more than two lanes in each direction and to pursue a toll pilot
"Virginia needs to look at all options for long-term funding for
transportation," Bullock said, noting that the board's decision will
allow VDOT to continue working on a Federal Highway Administration
"It doesn't mean there is a decision made to toll 81...," she added. "It's just leaving that option on the table to continue looking at it."
CTB member James A. Davis - who is also the president of Shenandoah
University in Winchester - said he did not want to see toll money
raised on I-81 and spent on other projects throughout the state.
"I would only be in favor of tolls if they used tolls statewide," he
said. "I don't think it's fair to put tolls on 81 and not put them
in other places."
The highway will be studied in eight sections. The Winchester area's
section is one of the shortest at 25 miles.
The local study area will extend between the I-81/Interstate 66
intersection in Warren County and the West Virginia line. Winchester
is the only city near the highway in that section.
Four interchanges in the section need significant work, which could
cost $40 million to $60 million for each, Davis said. |||
Oct. 12, 2006 - Daily News Record - Harrisonburg
APPROVES PLAN FOR I-81
Officials Leave Option For Future Tolls Open
By Kelly Jasper
HARRISONBURG - Transportation officials on Wednesday approved a plan
to improve safety on Interstate 81, while also opening the door to
tolls on an interstate that could widen up to eight lanes.
The Commonwealth Transportation Board unanimously approved the plan
at its meeting in Roanoke.
Before the vote, local residents addressed the board via
videoconference at the Virginia Department of Transportation office
Many said they supported the safety improvements, calling the plan
an improvement over an earlier one-size-fits-all solution. But many
also said they were concerned the board gave VDOT too much
flexibility to fix I-81 without addressing serious flaws in the plan.
The Approved Plan
The board's plan forwards three main strategies to improve the 325-
First, immediate safety improvements will include new truck-climbing
lanes and longer entrance and exit ramps, said Pierce Homer,
Virginia's Secretary of Transportation and the chairman of the board.
The plan spends $100 million of federal funds that were earmarked
for new climbing lanes, Homer said. The board also approved the use
of $45 million to finance the ramps.
"I'm certainly pleased they decided to use the money appropriated,"
said Del. Chris Saxman, R-Staunton. "It's been a long time coming."
Construction on these short-term projects could begin in less than
two years, according to VDOT.
Second, the board endorsed studying rail as an alternative to truck
traffic. VDOT will partner with Norfolk Southern to identify high-
impact, short-term rail improvements that could ease congestion on I-
81, Homer said.
The multi-state study will examine at least 500 miles of the
corridor. Depending on the study's results, rail improvements could
begin as early as next year.
Del. Matt Lohr, R-Broadway, said he was especially excited that the
board would study rail options.
"It's worth exploring," he said. "If we can relieve a lot of truck
traffic... it's a win for drivers on I-81."
Third, to address long-term needs, the board approved the widening
of I-81 up to eight lanes. The solution also permits tolling as a
source of long-term funding.
The first tier of the Corridor Improvement Study reports that 37
percent of I-81 needs at least one more lane in each direction. The
plan permits no more than two additional lanes in each direction.
State Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, said that while he was
encouraged by most of the board's actions, he would not support
tolls exclusively on I-81.
"Over my dead body," Obenshain said on Tuesday. If the state
considered tolls on all Virginia interstates, "then we'll talk."
Next, the board will finalize the first tier of the I-81 study and
send it to the Federal Highway Administration for approval. Upon
approval, VDOT will start site-specific analysis to improve I-81.
Dozens Watch Meeting Locally
Local response to the I-81 decision varied.
Residents who watched the meeting locally said
they appreciated the
convenience of the videoconference, but were frustrated when the
signal disconnected them from Roanoke for about 20 minutes. Those
who still wanted to speak were able to, but couldn't hear a
presentation on the updated version of the plan.
Kim Sandum, 38, of Harrisonburg, came to the videoconference. She is
president of the Community Alliance for Preservation, which
campaigned against a massive, unwieldy interstate.
"People were under the impression that tolls were out," she said.
And while she's pleased to see the board will consider rail
improvements, she says other alternatives were never given a fair
"Now there isn't any incentive to go back and fix it," she
said. "The door is wide open." |||
Oct. 12, 2006 - Northern Virginia Daily
State board says no to making I-81 truck tollway
By Garren Shipley (Daily Staff Writer)
ROANOKE — Any expansion of Interstate 81 will be no more than two
lanes in each direction, won't run the length of the entire corridor
and will cast an eye toward rail.
That's the end result of a vote Wednesday by the Commonwealth
Transportation Board, essentially putting a final stake through the
heart of a controversial plan to turn the highway into a truck
STAR Solutions, a consortium of construction companies, had
approached the Virginia Department of Transportation with the idea
of expanding the highway via a public-private partnership that would
be paid for by tolls on trucks.
But the public was largely against such an expansion, according to
comments collected by VDOT. Some 58 percent of those who commented
on the proposal said they wanted a greater emphasis placed on rail
That led the board to unofficially reject the STAR proposal at a
meeting last month.
Wednesday's resolution lays out the framework for both short-term
and long-term improvements to the highway. Among other things, it:
> Instructs VDOT to build "not more than two general purpose lanes
in either direction, only where needed," and only with "the advice
and consent of the Commonwealth Transportation Board."
> Formalizes a partnership with Norfolk Southern to do an immediate
study of what can be done in the short term to get more trucks off
the highway, as well as the longer-term prospects for relocating
> Orders VDOT to "take immediate action" to draw down federal
dollars for safety improvements, including the addition of truck
climbing lanes, the extension of on and off ramps and the overhaul
of major interchanges.
Winchester and Frederick County are home to a number of ramps and
interchanges that could be overhauled using the $140 million
congressional appropriation from last year. Exits 310, 313 and 317
could see major changes under the adopted resolution.
But the plan does come with a catch that made at least one member of
the board pause before voting in favor of the resolution.
VDOT "should continue to consider a toll pilot project on Interstate
81 other than for dedicated truck lanes as a part of general
exploration of additional financial resources needed to support long
term improvements in the Interstate 81 corridor," the resolution
James Davis, president of Shenandoah University and the Staunton
District representative on the transportation board, questioned
whether the tolling language should remain in the document.
Virginia only has permission from the federal government to collect
tolls on trucks along I-81, he said.
"Are we talking about a broader topic?" he said. If the resolution
does intend to introduce tolls on cars, it might be better to "leave
that matter to the General Assembly."
All the tolling paragraph does is keep the commonwealth's long-term
options open, said Secretary of Transportation Pierce Homer.
The resolution had been thought to be a source of likely
controversy, but a rework by Jim D. Bowie, who represents the
Bristol District on the board, allayed a number of serious concerns.
Bowie said his amendment was aimed at getting I-81 improved as
quickly as possible.
"Do it now before the increasing costs rise even more," he said. "Do
it now to avoid wrecks and other fatalities."
Opponents said the previous proposed resolution could "give VDOT a
blank check," Bowie said, to expand the road without giving rail