Citizens groups join suit to block I-81 widening

Story by Chris Graham

The New Jersey Turnpike in the Shenandoah Valley. That’s what critics of the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Interstate 81 widening plan envision happening if the engineers get their wishes.
“For us, our mission is to protect farms, forests, open spaces and cultural heritage – and this is impacting all of those things, as well as the small-town community character that we so much love in the Valley. So it hits on all cylinders for us. We’re greatly concerned,” said John Eckman, the executive director of the Staunton-based Valley Conservation Council, one of seven citizens groups to have signed on to a lawsuit filed in December to prevent the Federal Highway Administration from allowing VDOT to move forward with any plans regarding I-81 until the agencies have corrected what they see as the plan’s fundamental flaws.

The Valley Conservation Council has joined other lawsuit newcomers like the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Scenic Virginia, APVA Preservation Virginia, the Virginia Organizing Project, the Rockbridge Area Conservation Council and the Sierra Club in the action, which was filed on Dec. 17 in federal court in Charlottesville by Larry Allamong, a Shenandoah County farmer, the Shenandoah Valley Network and the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

Megan Gallagher of the Shenandoah Valley Network said in an interview for today’s “Augusta Free Press Show” that the growth in the number of parties to the lawsuit had been expected.

“All of the different groups that did sign on are involved in some way – whether it’s underserved people dealing with affordable housing or other issues, or the National Trust, which deals with historic resources. We managed to get pretty much everyone we asked to join onto the suit,” Gallagher said.

In a separate interview for today’s “Augusta Free Press Show,” Eckman said the goal of the Valley Conservation Council and others interested in the I-81 project is “to make sure that the process gets opened up, and that all the alternatives, including the freight-rail getting trucks off of interstate, and other improvements that have been suggested, can get a full airing and really be viewed for their economic and cultural-resource and natural-resource benefits.”

“It’s going to impact things one way or the other. The question is, are we really doing a thorough job considering what those impacts are going to be? And currently, that’s a big worry – that we’re not going to look at all those impacts,” Eckman siad.

Gallagher, for her part, is concerned that VDOT engineers are not looking at all of the possible options for dealing with traffic congestion that could be on the table.

“The reasonable solutions, the multiple options, are incremental,” Gallagher said. “They include the safety improvements. VDOT did announce over a month ago that it had over $700 million worth of safety improvements, everything from fixing entrance and exit ramps that are unsafe, or widening in a specific congested area.

“There’s that. There’s as you mentioned the rail-freight diversion, which is actually holding out great promise. Norfolk Southern says it’s come up with a plan to divert up to 25 percent of the through trucks off the highway. That’s not 100 percent, but it’s still a really significant impact, and with much less cost, and much less damage to the community.”

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

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