Attorneys: VDOT did not consider alternative fixes
The Northern Virginia Daily
April 7, 2009 By Garren Shipley
Opponents of the proposed expansion of Interstate 81 took their arguments before a federal judge on Monday, hoping to send state and federal transportation officials back to the drawing board.
Attorneys for a coalition of conservation groups argued their case for resetting the planning process in federal court in Charlottesville.
They allege that the Virginia Department of Transportation and federal transportation officials did not give enough consideration to highway fixes other than building more lanes of the highway.
A decision reached in 2007 calls for the highway to be expanded in some places to as many as eight lanes at a cost of more than $11 billion.
"It's time for VDOT to abandon the costly and destructive plan for I-81," says Kate Wofford of Luray, executive director of the Shenandoah Valley Network, in a press release.
"Our state transportation budget has evaporated and taxpayers are tapped out," Wofford said. "Virginia's plan to spend billions on an ineffective widening of all 325 miles of I-81 is, and always was, unaffordable. Better alternatives exist, but were ignored in the [Federal Highway Administration/VDOT] environmental study."
That's not the case at all, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration.
A number of concepts -- including rail projects -- were included in their planning process, but only building more lanes of highway eased congestion on the road, according to court documents.
"Simply stated, the Plaintiffs disagree with the chosen [initial] improvement concept and the resultant limitations placed on consideration of alternatives during [future planning]," lawyers for the agencies wrote in court filings.
The plaintiff's preferred alternative -- a multi-state, freight rail project to take trucks off the highway -- simply won't fix future congestion problems, the defendants said.
"Even if a multi-state rail option was implemented, and ALL commercial truck traffic were to be diverted to freight rail, the majority of I-81 would still require widening," the agencies wrote.
Legal challenges aside, political momentum against a major expansion of the highway has been building for years, even before the suit was filed.
In 2007, the Commonwealth Transportation Board voted to limit any future expansion of I-81 to only two additional lanes in either direction, and only where needed.
Meanwhile, the General Assembly passed a law that would allow tolls on the highway only with the legislature's express consent -- unlike every other interstate in Virginia.
Since the suit was filed, STAR Solutions, a private construction consortium that had planned to build a massive, multibillion-dollar truck-tollway along the Interstate, has pulled out of negotiations with the state.
Money for any major interstate projects also has dried up.
Shrinking gas tax receipts have bankrupted the federal transportation trust fund and force the Commonwealth Transportation Board to cut billions from its long-range plans.
118 Madison Place - Staunton, Virginia 24401 | 540.292.0396