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Center worries about long-term impact of improvement schedule on 81

Story by Chris Graham

The short-term worry is about a planned seven-mile improvement project on Interstate 81 in Rockbridge County.
The longer-term worry is about the rest of the 325 miles of I-81 in Western Virginia.
“That’s the biggest concern that I have – because this seven-mile project, while it is overly broad, and it will have impacts, it’s not the worst project that VDOT has proposed in the state. But it sets the precedent for – as you said, there’s been a long-term study of improvements needed on I-81, there are clearly improvements needed up and down the corridor, and it’s clear that we’re going to have decades of improvements I think of one scale or another,” said Trip Pollard, the director of the land and community program at the Charlottesville-based Southern Environmental Law Center.

The SELC has raised issue with a proposed widening project in Rockbridge County in which it appears the Virginia Department of Transportation might be trying to skirt around environmental-study requirements in advance of construction.

“The Southern Environmental Law Center strongly supports safety improvements to the I-81 corridor. Our concern is that the proposal as it is is not in one of the safety hotspots that VDOT’s environmental-impact study showed,” Pollard said in an interview for this week’s “Augusta Free Press Show.”

The center is also concerned more basically with the design of the project – which Pollard said is “not a simple truck-climbing lane,” as VDOT seems to be trying to claim it to be.

“Most truck-climbing lanes are typically one mile or less. This would be seven miles in length – and instead of adding a simple lane, it would add 30 feet of pavement and a 17-foot shoulder. So this is a substantial expansion of the project, and our concern is not only with the size of the project, but that there has been no study of the adverse environmental and community impacts, other than a fairly cursory summary,” Pollard said.

“Federal law requires that road projects look at impacts on communities and the environment – but there are some exceptions. And one of the exceptions, which lets you get by with just a very minimal review is for a truck-climbing lane – because typically those are fairly short projects, because you’re adding only 12 feet or so of pavement,” Pollard said. “But again this is a seven-mile-long project, and 30 feet of pavement, so we think this is not at all the type of project that should be covered by that exemption. And that this will have a lot of impacts – like relocating streams, filling wetlands, it will pave a lot of farmland, and there will be runoff problems. And yet none of these have been looked at adequately.”

The big-picture concern for Pollard is “that this is setting a precedent of minimal look at community environmental impacts and maximum footprint.”

“Rather than looking more at what I would call a context-sensitive approach that tries more to understand a community and its environmental resources before you proceed to an advanced stage of design, and you have more significant public input, a more collaborative approach, with a full range of citizens, who know this area the best,” Pollard said.

Chris Graham is the executive editor of The Augusta Free Press.

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