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A wider I-81 still possible in region


By Alex Bridges

The threat of a wider Interstate 81 still looms over the region, according to a group seeking a less-costly and invasive remedy.

The Shenandoah Valley Network has amassed support for its alternative plan to fixing the problems associated with Interstate 81, while Shenandoah County also took a lead in the effort, according to the organization's Director Kate Wofford.

Wofford gave a presentation to the Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors at its meeting Tuesday night and advised the board that the Virginia Department of Transportation only proposes expensive, destructive projects.

Shenandoah County has asked for funding to build a new interchange near Woodstock. But as Wofford reminded the board, the county has not seen a new project on its share of the interstate in years.

Whenever limited funds are available they are used on "overbuild megaprojects" in specific places along the interstate, Wofford told the board. One example is the truck-climbing lane in Rockbridge County.

Wofford advised that the "good news" is a new group of legislators are working together to come up with a better approach to improving the interstate.

Supervisor Steven Burke said he's seen some of the projects under way on the interstate and called it "mind-boggling."

Vice Chairman Dennis Morris noted that according to information provided by the Shenandoah Valley Network many of the "megaprojects" appear well over budget.

Supervisor David Ferguson noted that widening the interstate would hurt the county and asked whether data exists to show the impact of noise and other pollution

"I think we have the ability to solve our problems with I-81 within the I-81 corridor," Wofford said, in response to comments about efforts to divert traffic to U.S. 29.

Wofford told the board that Norfolk Southern railway has in the works an effort to divert truck freight to trains.

VDOT in 2007 approved a plan that called for the widening of Interstate 81. The Federal Highway Administration also endorsed the plan, Wofford explained. That plan remains on the books.

"It relies on a single approach to fixing the problems on the interstate and that is widening and it really calls for much more widening than we need and it doesn't look at alternatives," Wofford said by phone earlier on Tuesday. "It doesn't look at using local road networks to fix the congestion in places like Harrisonburg and Winchester.

"It doesn't look at the real potential of moving some of the truck traffic from freight onto rail, which makes a lot more sense than just building more and more and more lanes on 81," Wofford added. "It's so destructive and expensive. When you've got eight lanes of interstate or at some of these interchanges, 10 lanes or 12 lanes as planned, that ends up taking lots of private property, farmland, Civil War battlefield land, historic structures, existing businesses."

The 2007 plan also calls for the commonwealth to fund the widening of the interstate with tolls -- a widely unpopular idea in the valley.

The Shenandoah Valley Network, headquartered in Luray, announced in a press release Tuesday its support for a new legislative caucus created in Richmond. That group consists of nine representatives of the Shenandoah Valley in the General Assembly who joined forces to form the Northern I-81 Caucus to address problems with the state's plan to widen the highway.

Del. C. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, co-chairs the caucus with Del. Ben Cline, R-Lexington. The caucus also includes Delegates Michael Webert, Tony Wilt, Steve Landes and Dickie Bell, as well as state Senators Jill Vogel, Mark Obenshain and Emmett Hanger.

Gilbert and Cline invited colleagues to join the caucus in a letter stating that the state and local communities can't afford the current $11.4 billion plan, Wofford notes in the release. She adds that the legislators oppose intrusion on property rights and the negative impacts anticipated by widening the highway as planned.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com


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