VDOT Gives STAR Solutions Nod in I-81 Widening Project

Mon March 08, 2004 - National Edition

ROANOKE, VA (AP) Transportation Commissioner Philip Shucet said Friday the state will work with a group of construction and financing firms called STAR Solutions while preparing to fix traffic-choked Interstate 81.

For approximately two years, the group has proposed widening I-81 to four lanes in each direction, separating cars and trucks, and charging tolls to help finance a 15-year project that would ultimately cost $11 billion.

Shucet said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press that he thinks the STAR Solutions plan "closely fits what’s ultimately needed" on the interstate. However, the group is not being offered a contract yet.

No blueprints can be drawn before the completion of a federal environmental review that will only be partially complete by mid to late 2005. The Virginia Department of Transportation also is considering enhancing the railroads along the interstate, and it needs guidance from the government on what kind of vehicles it is allowed to toll.

"When we do know what we’re going to design and what we’re going to build, it may be something that STAR Solutions isn’t interested in," he said. "It might be something they’re not best suited to do."

Transportation officials will begin negotiating with STAR on a possible road improvement plan that will ultimately be guided by the environmental review.

"We look forward to working with VDOT to help bring all users of I-81 a safer, less-congested highway," STAR Solutions spokesman Rick Volk said in a statement.

I-81, which runs 325-miles along Virginia’s Appalachian spine, has been choked by growing communities on either side and heavy truck traffic. Big rigs now account for 20 percent to 40 percent of traffic on the interstate, even though it was designed to hold only 15 percent truck traffic.

A December report by the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation said truck traffic on I-81 is expected to increase as much as 90 percent by 2020.

Shucet’s decision comes at the recommendation of a state transportation panel. The 11-member committee of VDOT staff, Commonwealth Transportation Board officials and outside experts endorsed on Feb. 13 the STAR Solutions plan over a competing $7 billion proposal by Fluor Virginia Inc. that would have added two lanes to the highway.

In its recommendation, the panel suggested tolling all vehicles instead of just big rigs. Virginia law does not allow this, and the General Assembly tabled legislation this year that would have given VDOT the authority.

Shucet said any new construction on I-81 would need to be at least partially financed with tolls. He said he remains concerned, however, that truckers would simply take other routes, clogging parallel roads or using other interstates.

A state-sponsored study completed last month shows that truckers likely would avoid I-81 if VDOT charged tolls. Truckers said they would use U.S. routes 11 or 29, or drive through Richmond on I-95. The study showed that 20 percent to 30 percent of truckers would ditch I-81 if it charged tolls of 15 cents per mile. Tolls of 25 cents per mile would divert 30 to 50 percent of trucks.