Op-Ed by Kim Sandum
Just before Christmas, some of the people I work with sued the Virginia Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration over plans to expand I-81. It needed to be done. The story of I-81 is a cautionary tale for the rest of Virginia about a state agency that too often won’t listen to the locals.
That doesn’t have to be the case. Because for nine years, government officials, business leaders and citizens in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County worked with local VDOT staff to address transportation needs in our region. Ideas for a north-south bypass around the city were set aside, in favor of much-needed east-west road connections between homes and jobs, which also would reduce local traffic on I-81.
But in the case of the I-81 study, VDOT planners ignored our hard work and sent to the FHWA a single, incompatible approach for I-81: widening the scenic highway to eight lanes through 79 percent of the Shenandoah Valley, at a cost of $11 billion, funded by tolls.
That is bad enough. But Rockingham County is one of two locations on the entire I-81 corridor to be burdened with a new highway bypass, a concept rejected during our regional planning process. The bypass could plow through Rockingham’s agricultural reserve and two Civil War battlefields.
There was tremendous public outcry over VDOT’s I-81 plans in April, 2006. More than 1,000 people attended six hearings. Ninety percent of them spoke out against tolls and highway widening, in favor of options like moving truck freight to rail. VDOT reports that it received 2,600 written comments, 80 percent opposed to tolls and 78 percent in favor of rail.
VDOT even ignored our state legislators. Senators Emmett Hanger and Mark Obenshain and delegates Matt Lohr, Steve Landes, Chris Saxman and Todd Gilbert staunchly opposed massive widening and I-81-only tolls by introducing numerous bills in the General Assembly since 2002.
But VDOT’s final I-81 plan was little changed. It rejects the multiple lower cost, lower impact options supported by local governments and citizens groups like mine: select safety improvements, diversion of truck freight to rail, better speed limit enforcement, increased transit and improvements to local road networks.
In response to our complaints (and to the lawsuit filed last month by conservation groups) VDOT’s spokeswoman soothingly insists that only spot improvements to the highway are being pursued and that there isn’t any money for major widening.
Well, I’m not sure what plans they are reading in Richmond. But it certainly isn’t the four-inch-thick report we read, the I-81 Tier 1 Final Environmental Impact Statement, submitted by VDOT to the federal highway administration for approval.
In their document, you’ll find eye-popping diagrams showing 12 lanes as the “Maximum Width Template” for widening and 20 lanes for the “Maximum Width Cloverleaf Template” for interchanges. A chart outlines that most of the I-81 corridor gets four or more new lanes and the rest gets two new lanes.
VDOT also failed to study obvious community impacts from their proposals. Buried in a footnote in the FEIS Executive Summary, it says: “The potential effects in this Tier 1 study … do not include the impacts from potential corridors on new location.” The document does not address the residences, businesses, battlefields, recreational facilities, schools or anything else in the way of the proposed bypass in my community.
VDOT’s final report also grants them the authority to pursue their application to toll I-81. When federal officials approve the application, VDOT will have plenty of money for highway widening and bypasses. Locals like me will pay for a road we don’t want.
The deadline to challenge VDOT’s I-81 plans was Dec. 17, 2007. Without legal action, the only I-81 proposals to move forward to the next phase of study would be major widening and tolls. The lower cost, lower impact options we supported would have been excluded, legally, from further consideration.
Reluctantly, several conservation groups filed suit to stop the clock and give citizens, legislators and local governments time to convince VDOT to reopen the FEIS document, address its flaws and incorporate more balanced options for addressing congestion and safety problems on the highway.
Expansion of an interstate highway will have major impacts on any community. We can do better than the current I-81 plan, beginning with VDOT listening to the locals.
Kim Sandum is the executive director of the Rockingham Community Alliance for Preservation.