|2006 Recap |
RAIL Solution accomplished many exciting things this year — things skeptics repeatedly told us could not be done! The STAR plan for an I-81 truckway is vanquished, our HB-1581 initiative for a multi-state rail intermodal assessment is underway jointly between the Commonwealth and Norfolk Southern Railway, and a saner and more balanced official transportation policy for I-81 is in place in Virginia.
A year such as 2006 doesn’t just happen. I didn’t make it happen.
The officers and Steering Committee didn’t make it happen. You the members and participants in RAIL Solution made it happen! Without our more than 1300 citizen volunteers, these achievements would never have been possible...
Dialog with Gov. Kaine
Even before Governor Kaine took office, he embarked on a listening tour around the state. RAIL Solution representatives attended most of these sessions and talked about our vision for balanced transportation planning with a real role for rail. At some of these sessions we were able to set up displays and distribute hand-outs. Our executive committee went to Richmond during the first week of January to visit with Kaine’s transition team and help them clarify transportation priorities for the new administration.
Analyzing and responding to the I-81 Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS)
This was a high priority. Issued in late November, 2005, the DEIS badly shortchanged rail potential in the I-81 Corridor, rejecting the only viable rail option -- one we had suggested during the scoping process. The DEIS was peppered with errors and omissions, some rather substantive. Our official response detailing these deficiencies ultimately totaled 21 pages.
The Multi-state Rail Intermodal Feasibility Bill
Largely to plug this huge hole in the DEIS, RAIL Solution authored and sought sponsors for a bill before the Virginia General Assembly directing a multi-state rail intermodal feasibility assessment in the I-81 Corridor. The bill, HB-1581, passed both houses unanimously and was signed into law by Governor Kaine.
Writing and distributing issue analyses
During the public comment period on the DEIS, RAIL Solution wrote and distributed by e-mail individual issue analyses targeted to specific groups, helping to guide and encourage their responses. These included economic and industrial development authorities, local governments, health-care professionals, historic preservationists, environmentalists, railroad employees and fans, and the travel and tourism industry. More importantly we wrote and professionally designed two-sided glossy briefing papers, in both mailer and hand-out formats, encouraging the public to comment in opposition to the DEIS and its rejection of the rail alternative. These went to thousands of citizens in the Corridor and were used as well in greeting people arriving at the six public hearings held during April. A very high percent of comments received on the DEIS were negative, and most of these also supported a rail freight alternative for I-81. One VDOT source admitted that the plan to rebuild I-81 from border to border as an 8 – 12 lane tollroad was the most widely opposed highway project ever in Virginia.
RAIL Solution Benefit with Barbara Kingsolver
In the midst of all this frantic activity, RAIL Solution took time in May to sponsor a benefit appearance by noted author Barbara Kingsolver at Hollins University in Roanoke. This delightful and informative evening featured her talk, a reception for the author beforehand, and a booksigning afterward. Because of her generosity, all proceeds from ticket sales went to RAIL Solution.
Keeping communications open with state rail and transportation organizations
Throughout the summer RAIL Solution representatives attended meetings in Richmond of the Freight Advisory Committee, the Rail Advisory Board, and the Commonwealth Transportation Board, speaking and making presentations when permitted. VDOT sought to dismiss the HB-1581 study as an unfunded mandate, and a lot of behind-the-scenes promotion was needed to secure a funding mechanism and get the project moving.
August 30th, a pivotal day
On that day our delegation went to Richmond for a luncheon meeting with Department of Rail and Public Transportation. There we were shown an August 25 letter from James Hixon, Norfolk Southern’s Executive Vice President Law and Corporate Relations, to Secretary of Transportation Pierce Homer, proposing to share and divide both the cost and scope of work for the HB-1581 study. A few weeks later Homer wrote back to Hixon accepting the NS proposal. Now the HB-1581 study of potential interstate diversion of trucks to rail in the Corridor can get underway.
Major Support from Gov. Kaine
After lunch, our RAIL Solution delegation met with Governor Kaine and eight of his top transportation officials. We discussed the leadership opportunity for Kaine and for Virginia to establish a new freight transportation paradigm for the 21st Century, starting in the I-81 Corridor. We urged a short-term focus on addressing safety issues and capacity chokepoints, while long-term maximizing the role of rail. Governor Kaine told his people he wasn’t going to micromanage them, but he wanted them to make it happen. The next month, when the administration’s new transportation policy for I-81 was announced, it followed just such a pattern.
Positive outcome in Commonwealth Transportation Board vote on the DEIS
At the September 21 meeting of the Commonwealth Transportation Board in Norfolk, we learned that VDOT was rushing forward with a planned resolution to the CTB to approve the badly flawed I-81 DEIS before the new information from the HB-1581 rail study could be included. The vote was planned for the CTB’s October 11 meeting in Roanoke, only a few short weeks away. Again we were taxed to organize a strong grassroots effort by our members and those of allied groups to phone, write, visit, and e-mail their CTB representatives, and to come speak at the October 11 meeting in opposition to the proposed adoption. With some outstanding help and support from Bristol CTB delegate Jim Bowie, we were successful in getting the resolution heavily modified and qualified, with conditions inserted to consider the results of the rail study when they become available next summer. Take a look at VDOT's online press release and the offical CTB resolution.
...So we take considerable pride and satisfaction in all our accomplishments as 2006 winds down. A saner and more balanced official transportation policy for I-81 is now in place in Virginia.