More hitch a ride to lawsuit against expansion of I-81
Northern Virginia Daily
Saturday, February 16, 2008
By Preston Knight
Seven citizens' organizations have joined two Shenandoah Val-ley conservation groups and a Fishers Hill man in a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration regard-ing expansion of Interstate 81.
In an amended complaint filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Charlottesville, the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the United States, Scenic Virginia Inc., APVA Preservation Virginia, the Rockbridge Area Conservation Council, the Virginia Organizing Project, the Valley Conservation Council and the Sierra Club are seeking injunctive relief against the two defendants to prevent right-of-way acquisition, financing, contracting or construction of additional lanes on I-81.
The Shenandoah Valley Network and the Coalition for Smarter Growth, along with Fishers Hill resident Larry Allamong, filed suit in December against Federal Highway Administration Administrator J. Richard Capka, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Mary Peters and Federal Highway Administration Virginia Division Administrator Roberto Fonseca-Martinez. Allamong owns 32 acres on Battlefield Road and would stand to lose his property if I-81 adds four or more lanes, the suit states.
The 10 plaintiffs are asking the court to prevent the highway administration from allowing the Virginia Department of Transportation to move forward with I-81 expansion — a plan that would add four to eight lanes — until the agencies have corrected the plan's fundamental flaws, a press release announcing the amended complaint states. A major problem is excluding cheaper and more efficient alternatives endorsed by local governments and citizens groups along the corridor, the release says.
The suit questions whether the National Environmental Policy Act was followed before a final environmental impact statement and a record of decision were approved for the I-81 corridor study. That plan, the suit states, will result in significant, irreversible, adverse effects on natural, scenic, cultural, historic and ecological resources and communities, as well as property owners, by taking 7,400 acres of developed land, 1,062 acres of prime farmland, 1,600-2,400 residences and 1,238 acres of Civil War battlefield land.
"We believe that the tiered planning process for improving I-81 has been deeply flawed," APVA Preservation Virginia Executive Director Elizabeth Kostelny says in the release. "By refusing to examine all of the impacts now, as required by federal law, the plan limits improvement options and forecloses on alternatives that would be less destructive to the region's unique historic and cultural resources."
John Eckman, executive director of the Valley Conservation Council, said Friday this is the first time his group has been involved in litigation.
"This is just such an egregious situation our board decided it was something we should pay attention to and get involved in," he said.
The new parties to the suit mention in their press release that actions taken by the General Assembly support their position. Bills have been passed by both houses of the legislature requiring VDOT to seek permission before any tolls are established on the interstate.
The suit states that the highway administration advanced I-81 as a toll pilot facility to allow tolling to be considered as a possible funding mechanism for highway improvements.
The expansion project re-mains alive despite VDOT's announcement last month that negotiations were broken off on a $13 billion expansion proposal from STAR Solutions, the press release states.
The plaintiffs advocate a balanced mix of improvements to I-81, including spot safety improvements to troubled areas and greater freight diversion from trucks to rail, the release states. Those were among the recommendations in a document titled "Reasonable Solutions: A Six-Point Plan for I-81" that 11 localities and civic groups endorsed in 2006, according to the suit.
"It's been such a broadly shaped concern," Eckman said. "It's been good to be part of something where you know the public is on your side."
Federal Highway Administration spokesman Nancy Singer has said her department doesn't comment on pending suits.
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