Virginia DOT Panel Endorses I-81 Plan

Mon February 16, 2004 - National Edition

SALEM, VA (AP) A state transportation panel on Feb. 13 endorsed a 15-year plan that would combat traffic on Interstate 81 by adding toll lanes and separating cars from trucks.

The 11-member advisory group of Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) staff, Commonwealth Transportation Board officials and outside experts sided with a $10.9 billion proposal by STAR Solutions that would widen the interstate to as many as eight lanes where I-81 crosses Interstate 64.

Star Solutions, a consortium of construction and financing firms, also wants to create two or three truck-only lanes and charge the big rigs tolls to help defray the construction cost. However, the panel suggested in its recommendation that the state consider tolling all vehicles to keep the charges low enough that truckers won’t switch to backroads or Interstate 95.

"I don’t think anyone likes it, but the only way to fund something like this is through tolls," said Deputy Secretary of Transportation Pierce Homer, who chaired the panel.

Currently, Virginia law forbids tolling cars on I-81, but legislation working through the General Assembly would make it possible.

I-81 has long been a headache for transportation officials. The 325-mile stretch from Winchester to Bristol is among the oldest in the U.S. interstate highway system. It now carries much more traffic it was designed to serve 40 years ago, and certain sections are known for high rates of fatal crashes.

After Friday’s six-hour meeting, the panel voted 9-1, with one abstention, to support STAR Solutions. In doing so, it rejected a competing, $7 billion proposal by Fluor Virginia Inc. that would have added two lanes, one on each side of the highway.

Phillip Stone, a panelist and member of the Commonwealth Transportation Board, said he didn’t like either proposal because neither adequately explored using a regional railroad system to decrease truck shipments on the interstate.

"By the time you build a road of this magnitude, what’s the incentive for rail?" Stone said. "Rail is gone."

Jonathan Gifford, a panel member and professor of public policy at George Mason University, said he didn’t like the idea of carving so many lanes through the mountains and forests of western Virginia. But with the state in a financial crunch, Gifford said he didn’t know when VDOT would have another opportunity to expand. He voted for the plan.

"This is probably it for 30 or 40 years," he said. "It’s our chance to upgrade."

VDOT spokeswoman Laura Bullock said the recommendation will be handed to Transportation Commissioner Philip Shucet next week. He can choose to go with the panel or make his own decision about how to handle the traffic-choked interstate.

Any construction on I-81 also would have to wait for a federal review in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act. Bullock said state officials will spend the next 18 months considering some of the same issues as the panel, including whether to add tolls, separate cars from trucks, and whether a rail line would be a better alternative to adding lanes.

The use of tolls will likely continue to be hotly debated among transportation officials, who fear they could backfire and send truck traffic along other avenues that don’t toll.

A study prepared for the VDOT advisory panel shows that truckers would likely avoid I-81 if it started charging tolls, using U.S. routes 11 or 29, or driving through Richmond on I-95. A toll of 15 cents per mile would divert 20 to 30 percent of truckers, according to the study. At 25 cents, 30 to 50 percent of truckers said they would find alternate routes.

Jay Smith, a spokesman for a group of truckers, shippers and manufacturers, said charging tolls will only hurt rural communities along I-81.

"It’s already difficult enough for western Virginia to attract new businesses and manufacturing facilities," Smith said. "This is going to put this part of the state in an even greater disadvantage in terms of development."