Collusion Between Corporate Interests, VDOT, and Certain Politicians...
In late April 2006, people in Western and Southwest Virginia will have a critical opportunity to speak up for the rural heritage of their communities. They’ll be asked to comment, in state hearings (see details), on a proposal to widen I-81, all 325 miles of it in Virginia, to six, eight, twelve, or even more lanes.
By 2003, trucks were already at three times I-81’s design capacity. With the expansion, that amount would more than double again by 2021, with the highway carrying more than twice the current amount of truck traffic; adding hundreds of thousands of pounds of toxic smog to the air in mountain and valley corridors; and costing upwards of $13 billion, to be paid for mainly with tolls for its whole length in Virginia.
How did such a life-changing plan get this far with very little publicity or citizen input, and what should residents know about the plan?
In 2000, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) released a six-year, pay-as-you-go plan that included proposed upgrades for especially congested spots on I-81. It was a straightforward proposal to ease traffic in a dozen or so areas where outdated highway design needed expansion or other improvements. In 2002, however, a consortium of major construction corporations, led by Halliburton Corporation subsidiary Kellogg Brown Root, came up with a much grander plan.
The consortium plan featured a $13 billion expansion of I-81 in Virginia, with dedicated truck lanes but no dedicated car lanes. VDOT is now actively negotiating with STAR Solutions, as the consortium is known. If STAR’s plan is adopted, the consortium would become the private contractor for a 15-year expansion of I-81, so costly that state funds alone couldn’t pay for it. STAR Solutions told Virginia that they had friends in Congress who would see that the federal government contributed up to $1.6 billion toward the massive widening plan.
Meanwhile, Congressman Don Young of Alaska had a vision that dovetailed neatly with the consortium’s proposal. The powerful chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is reportedly eager to leave a legacy: an ambitious “master plan” for a national network of multi-lane truckways, financed largely by tolls. Young wants an experimental super truckway close to Washington so he can showcase his idea of a national system of truck-only lanes to fellow lawmakers. I-81 fits the bill. Coincidentally, STAR Solution partners executives contributed more than $150,000 to Don Young's 2004 campaign for Congress.
Young moved in 2004 to help defray the astronomical cost of the proposed project by earmarking almost $900 million in federal money, but the measure didn’t pass. Undeterred, Young came back in 2005 to insert some $600 million for a “demonstration project” in a major transportation bill. The bill passed as SAFETY-LU in August 2005 with only $100 million (of the original $800 million STAR said it could leverage) earmarked for truckways and an additional $42.5 million to "relieve freight congestion on I-81" without a truckway designation. The amount would be a first installment on $1.6 billion for Young’s I-81 trucklane project.
Following this disappointing showing by STAR Solutions' lobbyists, VDOT scaled back plans in their November, 2005 Draft Environmental Impact Statement, recommending fewer lanes, eliminating separated trucklanes, but sustaining a $10 billion pavement-only solution to increased freight traffic. Public hearings identifying possible negative effects of highway expansion on Western and Southwest Virginia’s physical environment, economy and quality of life are part of the federally mandated National Environmental Policy Act process requiring environmental study of transportation alternatives. Though an EIS should be conducted by an unbiased party, VDOT hired a former STAR partner, Vanasse, Hangen, Brustlin Inc., to conduct this study.
Simply expanding the highway would not solve existing traffic problems. Although I-81 has yet to reach saturation level for cars, it is carrying almost three times as many trucks as it was designed to handle. Of these, more than two-thirds are “just passing through” Virginia.
I-81 has become the “East Coast Truck Bypass” because it avoids bottlenecks on I-95. It’s a key road for interstate truck traffic all the way from Florida and the Southwest to New York and New England — now one of the top eight trucking routes in the country.
If this huge highway is built to accommodate freight traffic, Virginia will face a major financial risk. If toll projections are not met, funds to meet the deficit will come out of taxpayers’ pockets. A toll road recently completed outside of Richmond, the Pocahontas Parkway, has so far yielded a disappointing half of projected tolls. For I-81, VDOT’s own Chief Financial Officer, Barbara Reese, predicted that even a “hiccup” in traffic flow could severely impact revenues. Fuel-price hikes, a general economic slump, or trucks switching to other routes to avoid tolls could cause such a downturn, leaving Virginia responsible for billions of dollars in unpaid bonds. VDOT's own study shows massive diversion of trucks to U.S. 11, 29, 340, I-95 and other routes unequipped to handle increased congestion.
There are safer, cheaper alternatives, such as higher-speed railroads that could divert more than half of the freight traffic from I-81, but these have not been seriously evaluated at the state level. Instead of seeking public input on the issues of safety, dollars and the threats to health, the economy and quality of life that the truckway plan entails — and possible alternatives — VDOT is proceeding with its consortium no-bid contract negotiations.
Who is selling this snake oil? STAR partners include Randolph DeLay, brother of the former House Majority Leader, and the Richmond law firm, McGuire Woods, which helped write the Public-Private Transportation Act of 1995 that the STAR contract talks are based upon. These partners are selling STAR's speculative interests to transportation fund-hungry state and national politicians. McGuire Woods' advertizing slogan makes it plain: "Relationships that drive results." These corporate-political relationships are far too cozy.
The public at this point has four main ways to be heard on the subject: By contacting Governor Tim Kaine, by attending VDOT's public hearings or submitting comments on line critiquing the Draft Environmental Impact Study, and by calling upon local leaders, state representatives, and members of the public to do the same. ||||