Groups file suit to block 81 widening
Story by Chris Graham
A lawsuit is not a great option when your goal is to get government to reconsider what it’s doing relative to a road project.
But the group that filed suit in federal court in Charlottesville on Monday to block further movement toward a massive reconstruction of Interstate 81 in Western Virginia didn’t feel like it had a choice.
“We have unfortunately been put in the position of having to file the lawsuit because the Federal Highway Administration established a statute of limitations that expired this past Monday, Dec. 17 – so we filed before 5 p.m. on Dec. 17,” said Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Washington, D.C.,-based Coalition for Smarter Growth, which joined the Shenandoah Valley Network and a Shenandoah County resident, Larry Allamong, as plaintiffs in the case, which asks the court to prevent the Virginia Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration from moving forward with improvements to I-81 until the agencies have corrected what the plaintiffs called in a press release the plan’s “fundamental flaws.”
“We would still prefer not to have to pursue this in court and hope that VDOT and the Federal Highway Administration will reconsider, will withdraw their official notice in what’s called the Federal Register, and will supplement their environmental study to incorporate the ongoing multistate rail study that the General Assembly called for and to consider other options short of widening,” Schwartz said in an interview for this week’s “Augusta Free Press Show.”
The Commonwealth Transportation Board seemed to put things with respect to I-81 on that very course late last year when it voted to authorize VDOT to begin on a course of safety improvements that could be completed within the next 12 to 18 months and to complete the environmental-impact study that has been ongoing for the past three years, in addition to requesting that the Virginia Department of Rail and Transportation work with Norfolk Southern to conduct a freight-rail study that could itself initiate short-term improvements to the rail system in Western Virginia that could divert truck traffic from I-81.
But the Coalition for Smarter Growth and other citizens groups that have been monitoring the developments relative to I-81 improvements say that VDOT has not changed its course from before the CTB vote that was oriented toward widening the interstate to eight lanes for the bulk of the I-81 corridor in Western Virginia and as many as 12 lanes in some of the higher-traffic locations on the highway.
“The overwhelming majority of people who got involved in the I-81 process in the Shenandoah Valley corridor of I-81 were opposed to major widening of I-81 and strongly supportive of rail improvements. In fact, VDOT told us that they had had record turnout at the hearings and record numbers of comments on this particular project. Yet after all that public comment, VDOT elected to pursue widening of basically over two-thirds of the highway to eight lanes and the rest of it all to six lanes, and then at particular interchange areas, like I-64 with I-81, you can expect a lot more than eight lanes, maybe up to 12 in some places where interstates interconnect with I-81,” Schwartz said in the radio interview.
“Why this is important is the Shenandoah Valley is a national treasure,” Schwartz said. “It is some of the most scenic countryside in the world, much less just the U.S. or Virginia, has a wealth of historic resources and numerous Civil War battlefields, which are threatened by the widening. So the goal of a multistate rail alternative is to remove as many trucks off the highway as possible and avoid the need to widen into the battlefields.
“It’s not hyperbole to say that there’s a risk of I-81 looking like the New Jersey Turnpike in the future – and that’s something we’d all like to avoid,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz seems to feel that the pending court action notwithstanding, “ultimately this is a political problem, and political decisionmakers play a key role.”
“I certainly think when you look at the fact that 11 cities, counties and towns along the corridor signed onto the Reasonable Solutions resolution, which called for rail as the primary alternative, and opposed extensive widening of the highway, that there is an extensive amount of political support in the corridor for something different. And in fact the Valley delegation have shown great leadership in challenging VDOT’s plans. They’re the ones who succeeded in winning the multistate rail study,” Schwartz said.
“We hope they’ll take additional action during this General Assembly session to ensure that these other alternatives receive priority treatment by VDOT,” Schwartz said. “And of course the governor plays a key role. He can weigh in – it’s his agency for the next couple of years still – and call on them to supplement the environmental study, like many people are requesting, to study and adopt a multistate rail improvement proposal, smarter land use, local road improvements, targeted safety improvements, et cetera.”
Chris Graham is the executive editor of The Augusta Free Press.