I-81 Expansion Concerns Battlefield Groups

Mon January 26, 2004 - National Edition

NEW MARKET, VA (AP) The Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation said proposals to widen Interstate 81 could wipe out hundreds of acres of battlefields valuable as tourist attractions, and the group is calling for planners to consider the historic land.

Historic preservation and heritage tourism groups are preparing to market a number of Valley battlefields this year as part of the 140th anniversary of military campaigns in the region.

"We are not opposed to transportation improvements," SVBF Board of Trustees Chairman Dan Stickley. "We are simply asking that we be kept apprised of what is going on and that its effects on the battlefields be mitigated to the greatest extent possible."

The foundation took up the issue this week at a meeting and sent the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) a Jan. 15 memo expressing its concerns.

Interstate 81 stretches 325 miles through western Virginia from Winchester to Bristol. It’s been overcrowded for years, and VDOT is considering two proposals to ease traffic.

A $5.9 billion plan by Fluor Corp. would add at least one lane in each direction and possibly some truck climbing lanes. It would help pay for the new construction by tolling all traffic.

A $6.3 billion plan by STAR Solutions would charge trucks only, but it includes alternate scenarios to charge tolls on passenger cars and to reduce truck toll rates. STAR also calls for at least two new lanes in each direction and separating heavy trucks from other traffic.

Environmental studies will have to be completed before the improvements can be made. SVBF Program Manager for Resource Protection John Hutchinson said the timetable for those studies has quickened under the Private-Public Transportation Act the General Assembly approved in 1995.

The first study phase is expected to end by August and result in a preferred plan’s recommendation. Hutchinson said the project’s effect on water, community and historic resources isn’t scheduled to be studied until after the first phase.

But foundation members want those considerations to be part of the process before a plan is recommended. The improvement proposals don’t consider their effects on historic sites, foundation members said.

During the Civil War, the main transportation artery for armies in the region was the Valley Pike –– today’s Rt. 11, which runs roughly parallel to I-81.

The expansion project could "improve the economy and quality of life" in the Shenandoah Valley, but also "overwhelm the area’s unique character, including the battlefields," the foundation wrote in a memo.

"This is why we would like to urge that mitigation measures be included in the planning, design and construction of any improvements to the interstate,’ the group said.