augusta free press news

Time to declare victory and come home

I agree with Kate Wofford that it’s time for the Virginia Department of Transportation “to abandon the costly and destructive plan for I-81” that would widen the interstate throughout Western Virginia. And then I think, We’re pretty much there now already whether VDOT is or not, right?
“Our state transportation budget has evaporated and taxpayers are tapped out. Virginia’s plan to spend billions on an ineffective widening of all 325 miles of I-81 is, and always was, unaffordable,” said Wofford, the executive director of the Shenandoah Valley Network, commenting on the latest development in a lawsuit by a coalition that includes the Network that is asking a federal judge to direct state and federal transportation officials to re-evaluate the $11.4 billion I-81 widening that has been on the table in one form or another for several years.

Let’s get one thing straight on this right here and right now – this proposed widening is never going to happen in any of our lifetimes no matter how this lawsuit turns out and no matter how the environmental studies by VDOT and the Federal Highway Administration turn out.

And I don’t think I’m breaking any news here when I say that, either. It’s time for the good guys to declare victory and come back home. (My obligatory Iraq reference for this column.) In the early ’00s, the momentum was on the side of the other guys who wanted to pave over Western Virginia with a 12-lanes-in-some-places monstrosity bisecting the various valleys to accommodate all the truck traffic traversing the Eastern Seaboard to deliver commodities back and forth in what was then a boomtime economy.

Fast forward to 2009, and the blip on the economic radar screen that is our Great Recession. Which will lift, no doubt, hopefully sooner rather than later, and when it does, it will be in a world not quite as different as the world had to seem to people, for example, after the invention of the telephone compared to before, or after the invention of the electric light bulb as compared to before, or after the invention of the automobile as compared to before, but we’re on the verge of something epochal.

I can’t imagine us in the post-$4-a-gallon-of-gas nightmare of the last couple of years ever thinking that those old driving habits ever made any sense, first and foremost. You ask me, and nobody ever does ask me, but I’d say that the root of our real-estate-market collapse is right there in that $4-a-gallon gas, which made living in the metro exurbs suddenly quite expensive and pushed housing prices down from the outside in thereafter.

Which gets us to $11.4 billion interstates. If we don’t come out of this mess thinking that rail is a big part of our future transportation solution, then I’m going to be ashamed of our lack of basic common sense. Rail, incidentally, isn’t going to mitigate the pressures on our aging roads-based infrastructure, and in fact it might throw a new pressure point into the equation, as trucks meeting up with rail cars and depots to take goods short-haul in our modified just-in-time delivery future put more strain on local road networks even as they disappear from the interstate roadways.

Our $11.4 billion I-81 is already a relic of the past in this view, like the Old Valley Pike that once replaced the old Native American trails that had predated it.

This all having been said, there has to be a better way for the Shenandoah Valley Network and its friends in the Valley to utilize precious time and resources than fighting this fight that has already been won. Perhaps they could get together and initiate a discussion on the issue identified above as to how the transportation networks of the future are going to look and make sure that what happens there is for the common good.


Story by Chris Graham