81: Wait and see

Special Report by Chris Graham
freepress2@ntelos.net
 

You might remember all the hubbub over what they were planning to do with Interstate 81. They were going to pave over the Valley! That was what people were saying, anyway, looking at the monstrosities of plans that we knew as the Star Solutions proposal and the Fluor proposal, not to mention what the Virginia Department of Transportation itself seemed to have in the works.

People came out in record numbers to public hearings up and down the Valley and Southwest Virginia to let officialdom know what they thought of the plans. The basic message: Thanks, but no thanks.

But there was also some ambivalence to our stand. After all, not many of us like having to deal with the truck congestion on 81, which is carrying twice the capacity of trucks that it was designed for – and considering the design flaws that any non-engineer can see with the long hills and windy curves that we’re somehow supposed to navigate to get to Roanoke or Harrisonburg or Winchester or Bristol, well, that’s saying something.

Those of us who had the time to give the issue some thought wanted to see the state look more at rail, which is to say, we wanted them to actually look at rail, as opposed to making it look like they were when we knew from reading their reports that they really weren’t. They eventually did, and released a report a few weeks ago on how increased rail capacity in Western Virginia could impact congestion on I-81.

Kudos also go out to the technocrats and their friends in the policy realm for getting to work on a new rail line connecting Manassas to Front Royal that will take some of the pressure off 81.

So we sort of got what we wanted on rail, and also sort of got what we wanted on the paving-over-of-the-Valley, because we’re now in the second decade of the 21st century, and the Valley hasn’t yet been paved over, and looking at the state’s finances, and multiple transportation-funding priorities, it’s not going to happen anytime soon, and anytime soon could be, 20 years, 30 years?

Which isn’t to say that there aren’t still issues with congestion that will need to be dealt with.
 

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“We’ve sort of been lucky because the economic slowdown took some of the pressure off with reduced movement of freight. But as the economy rebounds, we’re going to be right back where we started with this,” said Emmett Hanger, a state senator from Mount Solon, whose Senate district is split into two by I-81, and has been working in the policy realm on I-81 issues since the mid-1990s.

Hanger and another Valley legislator, Ben Cline, have been leaders in the effort to get policymakers in Richmond up to speed on what the Valley wants out of whatever happens with I-81. Both fought strenuously the Star Solutions proposed public-private effort that would have outsourced the improvements to a private consortium that would have paid its bills by assessing tolls that many in the Valley thought would strike a death blow to local economies up and down the corridor.

The death blow delivered instead to the Star Solutions proposal has forced the hand of the politicians and the engineers, who have been working in the wake of Star Solutions on piecemeal solutions focusing on the addition of climbing lanes in hilly areas and more money for enhanced State Police enforcement.

“The approach is one that I’ve resigned myself to,” Hanger said. “The approach itself isn’t a bad one, it’s just that we’re not putting enough additional monies into it. if we were putting in, say, $200 million a year, there would be people who would say, That’s not getting the job done, they would be very disappointed, but the truth of the matter is that over time, rather than just talking about the grandiose projects, you make solid progress. And even at the levels that we’ve had available to us, we’ve made some fairly significant progress. And I think that probably is the best approach. If we could just have funding dedicated to Interstate 81 between a hundred fifty and two hundred million dollars a year, I think over time a lot can be done with that.”

But as was mentioned earlier, the state finance environment isn’t conducive to even the modest funding approach advocated by Hanger. it’s not that 81 isn’t a priority, because it is, but 81 has to compete with 95 and other roads in Northern Virginia, and major congestion issues down in the Hampton Roads area, in a time when the funding environment for transportation is at a nadir.

“It’s really a part of the bigger picture in that we’ve not addressed revenue for transportations statewide in an adequate manner,” Hanger said.

The point man in Richmond on transportation is Sean Connaughton, who challenged Bill Bolling in 2005 for the Republican Party lieutenant-governor nomination, came up short in that race, went on to serve as the head of the U.S. Maritime Administration in the U.S. Department of Transportation under President George W. Bush, and in 2010, after the election of Bob McDonnell as governor, was named the Secretary of Transportation in McDonnell’s Cabinet.

Before his run at the lieutenant-governor nomination, Connaughton became known for his leadership as chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors toward the establishment of an in-house county transportation department that began funding its own roads projects.

The challenge for the experienced and well-traveled Connaughton vis-a-vis 81: “Getting a consensus on what are the improvements that can be made.”

“The amount of planning and programming and engineering and environmental work that has been done has been quite impressive. But all that came tumbling down when the Star Solutions proposal was terminated. Now the question is, when you look at different needs and different locations along the corridor, we have so many different stakeholders, and we have a limited amount of money that requires us to make essentially long-term investment plans along the corridor, that means we have to get consensus on a vision and develop a plan and then start to find money to go toward construction,” Connaughton said.

This is where Kate Wofford comes in. Wofford heads up an organization known as the Shenandoah Valley Network. A focal point for the Network has been keeping the drumbeat going on issues surrounding the longstanding improvement plans that still have 81 building out to 12 lanes in some locations along the corridor.

“It’s not been built, but unfortunately it’s the plan that’s still on the books. It’s the plan that was approved by VDOT and the Federal Highway Administration. Through the vast majority of the Valley, it would expand the interstate to eight lanes, and in some places 10 lanes and 12 lanes. We still have ourselves a problem in that that is the official plan for the interstate,” Wofford said.

It could be that the years of dormancy in the planning process could be making the job of people like Leopold harder. That sense of urgency that was felt in Western Virginia back in the 2004-2005 era has long since dissipated, for starters.

“We know that transportation dollars are really tight in the Commonwealth now, but when there are state and federal dollars to go to transportation projects in Virginia, they unfortunately tend to go to overbuilt projects that are built to what they call the ultimate profile, the eight- to ten-lane profile, when actually what we need are safety improvements in places where we have congestion, an additional lane as appropriate in some places, continued investment in the parallel rail line to get more trucks off the highway, and improved local road networks to reduce congestion that is of a more local nature. Unfortunately, this plan that’s on the books doesn’t capture those,” Wofford said.

The public-citizen critics can count as allies those on the inside like Hanger and Cline who have done their part to keep the fight against the paving-over-of-the-Valley going in the General Assembly.

“The uprising against the Star Solutions proposal came from the grassroots, and we have to be mindful of what people here are concerned about and what they want to see happen,” Cline said.

To hear the governor’s point man on transportation tell it, this is still something that is far out into the distance as far as any kind of movement toward an ultimate solution.

“I would like to see by the end of our term a consensus on the vision and a plan, and then the beginning of efforts to make incremental improvements, like we are now, with the truck lanes, incremental improvements to address where we have a consensus,” Connaughton said. “I think you’ll see a greater capacity, a safer roadway and better ability down the road to handle trucks and volume at various points along the 81 corridor. And then a plan that will last past this administration. Not just an opportunity to cut some ribbons during this administration, but something that guides long-term investment in that corridor.”

It doesn’t sound like a lot of dirt will be turning anytime soon.


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