On the massive, 148-mile New Jersey Turnpike, it can get as wide as 14 lanes on the toll road, with separate, dedicated lanes for trucks going in both directions.
Tolls there, which average $1.21 per trip, according to New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine, are set for a dramatic rise under his toll hike proposal, announced last week, to help pay for improvements to the turnpike’s infrastructure.
Meanwhile, the Virginia Department of Transportation has a controversial proposal on the table – the I-81 Corridor Improvement Study – that calls for widening the 325-mile stretch of Interstate 81 – which cuts through AugustaCounty – to four lanes going both north and south. It also has called for tolls to be established to help pay for the widening. Federal funds would also be used to pay for the I-81 work.
The tolls, as well as the potential widening to an eight-lane highway, would impact the Shenandoah Valley negatively in numerous ways, critics say.
They say it would adversely affect the region’s rich historical value by cutting through Civil War battlefields. They believe it would hurt the trucking industry and, in particular, the movement of poultry products – potentially putting additional traffic on secondary roads not equipped to handle it. And, they believe, the VDOT proposal would harm the environment.
All this, and the critics believe it would not deal directly with congestion and other safety issues along the highway.
“It’s taking a sledgehammer to a problem that needs a completely different approach,” said Megan Gallagher, director of the Shenandoah Valley Network (SVN) in The Plains.
The SVN, along with the Coalition for Smarter Growth of Washington, D.C., filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Charlottesville in December in an attempt to curtail VDOT’s proposal. The lawsuit asserts that the project would cost Valley residents $11.4 billion and would destroy the following:
* 7,400 acres of developed land;
* 1,062 acres of prime farmland;
* 1,600 to 2,400 residences;
* 662 businesses;
* 1,238 acres of Civil War battlefields;
* 33 acres of wetlands;
* 361 acres of floodplains;
* 23 miles of streams;
* 13 threatened or endangered species.
In a joint letter to Democratic Sen. Jim Webb, the then-chairmen of the Augusta, Rockingham and Shenandoah county Boards of Supervisors, asked whether safety improvements under the federal, Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act – including work on adding truck climbing lanes – could continue if the Tier 1 Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the I-81 Corridor Improvement Study were reopened.
The Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) division administrator, Roberto Fonseca-Martinez, replied back to the three supervisors Jan. 3. In the letter, he said that “it would not be prudent to ignore the relationship between the short-term truck climbing lane projects and the long-term improvement concept for I-81.”
The letter states that the FHWA is working with VDOT to develop truck climbing lane projects compatible with general purpose projects.
“However, if the Tier 1 EIS process were reopened and the Tier 1 Record of Decision invalidated,” the statement reads, “the ability to appropriately design and construct the truck climbing lanes would be problematic due to the uncertainty of the long-term improvement concept for I-81.”
AugustaCounty supervisor Nancy Sorrells called the reply “a lot of doubletalk.”
“A lot of productive agricultural land would be swallowed up,” Sorrells said.
Howard Kittel, executive director with the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation in New Market, says I-81 already goes through seven of the 10 battlefields in the Valley.
He says the foundation has been consistent about calling for safety and operational improvements.
However, he doesn’t believe I-81 needs to be eight lanes.
“We have questioned all along the justification for widening the interstate to eight lanes,” Kittel said. “Once you widen it to that extent, it requires an additional right-of-way.”
Not only would battlefield land be lost, Kittel believes the Valley’s existing character would be lost.
And the tolls, according to John Hutchinson of the Jennings Gap Partnership in Staunton, could cause truck drivers to pay up to $140 just to drive through the state. He calculated that the tolls would add up to 30 cents a mile for drivers.
Driving up costs
Trucks driving the length of the New Jersey Turnpike pay $23, though Corzine’s plans call for raising tolls by 50 percent every four years through 2022.
Hutchinson says the tolls are unfair because, for one, it’s the first time he knows of that a toll would be applied to an existing highway – rather than a new one – and two, it’s the only highway in Virginia that would be subject to a toll. That’s something he says is unfair to those who have to use I-81.
The result of the tolls, Hutchinson said, would be heavier truck traffic on secondary roads, such as U.S. Routes 11 and 340 – at least a 15-percent increase or more. The Virginia Trucking Association has told Hutchinson that the percentage “would be a lot more than that.”
VDOT has a different take. It believes that while 40 percent of traffic diverted off I-81 would use Route 11, the impacts “are not anticipated to be substantial because the number of vehicles traveling on U.S. Route 11 would not be substantially changed from future conditions.”
It said up to 29 percent of freight traffic would use alternative interstates to deliver their goods. And many trucks would stick to I-81 as opposed alternative routes “because a commercial trucker’s value of time is higher than that of a passenger car,” the agency said.
Impacting environment and trade
Hutchinson also says there would be environmental damage resulting from more traffic. For starters, he says a larger highway will only bring more truck traffic through the Valley, which would result in more pollution and runoff.
“It will significantly degrade the environment in Virginia,” Hutchinson said. “It will degrade our transportation resources and quality of life.”
Hobey Baughn, president of the Virginia Poultry Federation, is also opposed to tolls on I-81. He said tolls “would hurt our competitiveness in the Valley.”
While the poultry industry as a whole operates on thin profit margins, the Valley is close to significant population centers on the East Coast, Baughn said. But he said he does support truck climbing lanes.
“We would be concerned about proposals … to create multiple lanes along the entire length of the interstate and finance it primarily through tolls on trucks,” Baughn said.
Hutchinson, and others, have called for upgrades to rail as a way to get some freight traffic off the road. That is part of the concept known as Reasonable Solutions, endorsed in Augusta and four other counties, Roanoke, five northern Valley towns and 22 civic groups.
Those solutions call for combining approaches to the problems of congestion and safety on I-81 – spot road improvements, increased safety enforcement, improved transit options and moving more freight off of trucks and onto rails.
Kittel believes a one-lane expansion of I-81 on both sides is reasonable and “can largely be accomplished through the existing right of way.”
Waynesboro trucker John Bailey says truck climbing lanes will help, but unlike others who say rail can be part of the solution, he believes “rail won’t help at all.”
Norfolk Southern in July announced plans for a $2 billion rail upgrade that it says would divert one million trucks from I-81, including 750,000 trucks in Virginia.
Riding the rails
VDOT evaluated one of four potential concepts to use rail to divert freight off I-81, and said it would cut truck traffic on the interstate by just 3.5 percent. The cost of that rail concept would be more than $500 million. Combining rail with the addition of one to three lanes, would cost anywhere from $5 billion to $17 billion. Using a separated lane concept for either trucks or cars, would cost between $9 billion and $19 billion.
The state transportation agency concluded that “rail improvements do not eliminate the need for road improvements since they make only a slight change to the number of lanes needed on I-81 in Virginia.”
Sorrells wants to see increased rail use for freight, but acknowledges it is not the only answer.
But she says the continued back-and-forth about solving congestion about I-81 should not “stand in the way of the improvement that we need now for safety reasons.”
Del. Steve Landes, R-WeyersCave, says his constituents have expressed support for three lanes north and south on I-81, “but they don’t want the corridor disrupted to the point where 81 becomes a superhighway.”
“It’ll be interesting to see if VDOT moves forward with something that most citizens are not in favor of,” Landes said.
Those opposing VDOT’s current plans are in general agreement that improvements can come to I-81 without making it a superhighway.
As for the lawsuit, Gallagher says its attorney’s reading of the Tier 1 EIS is that it is approved and moved to Tier 2, meaning “that only widening gets serious consideration.” For now, nothing will happen on the lawsuit until at least mid-February, she said. She said she hopes the matter will not go to court, though.
She hopes public pressure will open VDOT’s mind and convince it not to go forward with its plan.
“It’s a big year for I-81,” Gallagher said. “It’s our last chance to convince VDOT to see reason and scale back the plans.”
Their plans, she said, should be affordable and reflective of the Valley’s character.
“They need to be responsive,” she said.
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