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Seth Coffman: Time to face reality on I-81

By Seth Coffman

Much has changed regarding I-81 in the nearly 10 years since Shenandoah Forum first focused on issues regarding the high-speed ribbon of asphalt that cuts through the entire Shenandoah Valley. Gas and diesel prices soared to nearly $4 a gallon in 2010. Freight rail service expanded. Funding for highway safety improvements and maintenance plummeted.

But one aspect of the issue's landscape has stayed the same for five years - the costly, destructive and unpopular plan for I-81 approved by state and federal highway officials in 2007 (www.virginiainterstates.org/i81.asp). The plan calls for just one approach to congestion and safety issues - widening most of I-81 from its typical four-lanes, to eight to twelve lanes, at a (conservative) cost of more than $11 billion.

The I-81 plan is hopelessly outdated. Gov. Bob McDonnell, Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton, and the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) need to face the financial, environmental, safety, and cultural heritage realities - and drastically revise it.
Shenandoah Forum was relieved when Del. Todd Gilbert (R-Woodstock) and his colleagues responded to the 2007 plan by passing legislation that prohibits the state from putting tolls on I-81 without the express approval of the General Assembly. They didn't want to give VDOT a blank check for massive widening funded by tolls sure to hurt the region's economy.

The time has come for Valley legislators to once again work together and urge state officials to reopen and revise the I-81 plan to find less costly and less destructive, solutions for the corridor.

In 2005, the Shenandoah Forum held a public forum on I-81 transportation issues drawing over 300 residents and representatives from VDOT, Rail Solutions and other community organizations. We need to put the focus back on the "Reasonable Solutions for I-81" plan endorsed by Shenandoah County, the towns of Edinburg, Mt. Jackson, New Market, and Toms Brook, and more than 40 local governments and civic groups in 2006 following our forum.

"Reasonable Solutions" calls for lower impact options: making safety improvements at accident hotspots like the section from Strasburg to Edinburg, shifting freight from trucks to rail, enforcing traffic safety rules and improving local road networks to ease local traffic on the interstate.

The current one-size-fits-all plan for I-81 wastes tax dollars and delays needed improvements as every part of the proposed project is supersized to reflect the widening scheme.

For example, a safety project in Rockbridge County called for one northbound truck climbing lane. To fulfill the requirements of the proposed I-81 plan, VDOT built three new lanes and a new five-lane bridge, at a cost of more than $84 million.
So far, five massive I-81 projects totaling $300 million are all-over budget and consume more than 50 percent of scarce transportation funds allocated for making improvements to I-81.

Demands on the highway have not lived up to VDOT's expectations. VDOT based the current plan on traffic projections that proved to be nine times higher than actual traffic growth in the past 10 years. Norfolk Southern is building a $2.5 billion upgrade to its I-81 rail corridor, diverting nearly one million trucks a year from Virginia's interstates. Yet the unimaginative and threatening approach of major I-81 widening persists as the only official option.

The 2007 plan acknowledges that widening to eight or more lanes will destroy 7400 acres of developed land, 1062 acres of farmland, 1485 acres of battlefield land, 2400 homes, 662 businesses, 23 stream miles and numerous historic communities and landscapes.
What's to be done?

We need new planning for I-81: an efficient and environmentally friendly plan that utilizes the most cost-effective, lowest-impact approach. The time is right for leaders in Richmond to reopen and revise the 2007 plan with meaningful local input from Shenandoah Valley's elected officials, stakeholders and residents.

For more information on "Reasonable Solutions" and the regional I-81 campaign, see www.shenandoahforum.org/i81reasonablesolutions.

Seth Coffman is the chairman of the Shenandoah Forum.


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