Friday, January 17, 2003
Star Solutions gives new details in plan
Group renews proposal for I-81
Today is the deadline for submission of such plans for the interstate.
By RAY REED
THE ROANOKE TIMES
The private builders' group that wanted to widen Interstate 81 renewed its proposal Thursday with new details about cost, safety features and switching freight to rail.
The cost is estimated at between $6.25 billion and $7.75 billion, said Star Solutions, a consortium of 25 construction and finance companies. Others had estimated the cost as high as $13 billion.
Virginia's tax-dollar investment would be capped at $169 million.
Concrete "Jersey barriers" would separate trucks from cars along the entire 325 miles of I-81 in Virginia, and bridges to help trucks exit from the interstate have been added to the plan.
Last year, the builders had proposed using only rumble strips to separate cars and trucks.
The Virginia Department of Transportation added a requirement in October that builders propose ways to divert some truck freight to railroads. Star Solutions said its proposal met that requirement, and it remains open to new solutions that may come from rail studies that are under way.
Other aspects of the Star Solutions proposal look much the same as its original plan, submitted in January 2002. It would provide at least four lanes in each direction, with two lanes each way reserved for trucks.
Construction could be completed in 15 years.
Star Solutions says a tax increase is not needed to pay for its plan.
The consortium said it envisioned two primary funding sources to pay for construction: tolls on heavy trucks; and an undetermined amount of federal funding for pilot projects to upgrade interstates.
Virginia has applied for I-81 to be one of three pilot projects allowed for in the current federal transportation act, which expires this year.
Federal funding amounts are expected to be decided when the transportation act is renewed in October. Rep. Don Young, R-Texas, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, has said he's interested in the I-81 proposal.
The cost of tolls to truckers would hinge on the amount of federal financing provided, said Mary Beth Jarvis, spokeswoman for Koch Performance Roads, a member of the Star Solutions consortium.
Trucking interests still don't like the tolls, but the Jersey barriers and improved truck exits are steps in the right direction, they said.
"We remain opposed to tolls on existing highways but are certainly eager to review Star Solutions' entire plan as well as other plans that are being submitted before rendering a judgment on any plan," said Jay Smith of Smart Solutions, a group of truckers and industrial shippers.
Star Solutions said its toll proposal complies with Virginia's law that allows a toll on trucks, but not cars, if I-81 is upgraded. The General Assembly is considering a bill that would extend the toll to cars and if it were to pass, VDOT would decide whether to spread the toll to cars, Jarvis said.
The assembly is also considering a companion bill that would eliminate all tolls. Both bills are in committees.
Jarvis said Star Solutions would try to keep any car tolls low for those commuting short distances on I-81, if car tolls were to be approved.
VDOT had set today as the deadline for I-81 proposals to be submitted under Virginia's Public-Private Transportation Act, which allows public roads to be built with private financing. The act is intended to get roads built faster than traditional financing allows.
At least one competitor was expected to submit a proposal today to widen all 325 miles of I-81. VDOT said it would announce at the end of the day how many proposals had been received.
VDOT has said it would decide by Feb. 14 if one or more proposals were worth a thorough review.
If one is deemed acceptable, contract negotiations would begin in July. The target date for reaching a contract is Sept. 30.
The cost range of $6.25 billion to $7.75 billion is intended to cover options that could be decided during the negotiations, Jarvis said. They include pavement maintenance and the amount of rail development included in the project.
Norfolk Southern Corp. has said it could improve its shipping times if it got $200 million to improve tracks between Manassas and Winchester. Jarvis said that track segment is among the rail possibilities included in the Star Solutions proposal as a way to divert some freight to rail.
Trucks would have their own ramps to exit and enter I-81 at major highway intersections and other primary truck routes.
New to the Star Solutions' proposal is a way to get trucks on and off I-81 in smaller cities.
In those communities, trucks would be provided a flyover bridge to carry them over the Jersey barriers and car lanes, and allow them to merge from the right shoulder into the car lanes just before reaching the local exits. There would be one such bridge for each three or four exits, Jarvis said.
The Star Solutions plan offered a year ago would have required trucks to cross a rumble strip and two lanes of car traffic to many of the local exits, and both the trucking industry and some police groups questioned its safety.