Column by Chris Graham
The Virginia Department of Transportation is staring down the barrel of a $6 billion gun with regard to improvements that need to be made to Interstate 81.
And the transportation folks are working with two private outfits – Fluor Virginia and Star Solutions – to look at how the project might best be accomplished.
The goal: to accommodate the 35,000 vehicles per day that traverse the 325-mile-long I-81 corridor.
Of that total, 5,000 vehicles a day are considered true interstate traffic – in that their starting and end points are outside the Commonwealth.
So now we’re down to 30,000 vehicles a day.
Which are supposed to be taken care of with the addition of either a single or two lanes in each direction.
Into this equation, Rockingham County Planning Commission member Steve Sisson – who is challenging Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Mount Solon, for the 24th District seat in the Virginia Senate – has offered an intriguing idea.
“Why don’t we look at making some improvements to Route 11 to take more of the pressure off from 81?” said Sisson, who theorizes that the improvements could encourage I-81 drivers on local trips – say, from Staunton to Harrisonburg – to take an alternate route.
“We may be seeing some improvements along the Route 11 corridor in the next six years, but nothing is planned in conjunction with the 81 project,” VDOT spokesperson Tamara Neale told The Augusta Free Press.
VDOT’s current work on the improvements project is focused on reviews of the Fluor and Star Solutions plans, Neale said.
The AFP attempted to contact representatives of the two – and did hear back from a Fluor spokesman, John Lambert.
“We responded to the requirements set out under the terms of VDOT’s request for proposal regarding improvements to Interstate 81, and the RFP did not ask us to contemplate any improvements to Route 11,” Lambert said.
“I’d like to see VDOT take a look at these kinds of alternatives,” Sisson told the AFP. “We certainly don’t need to undertake anything that would have us paying tolls.”
Both the Fluor and Star Solutions plans propose paying part or all of the bills associated with the I-81 widening project through the assessment of tolls. The Fluor plan would include tolls on passenger vehicles at a rate of five cents per mile.
A trip from Staunton to Harrisonburg would cost in the area of $1 to $1.25 under those terms. A trip from Staunton to Lexington would cost in the area of $1.50.
“That’s money out of our pockets. It basically amounts to a tax increase,” Sisson said.