|Saturday, May 31, 2003
|VDOT: Environmental study will take until 2006 or longer
Brakes applied to plans for I-81
|Two consortiums that want to build new lanes on I-81 said they would continue with their proposals.
By RAY REED
THE ROANOKE TIMES
The timetable for widening Interstate 81 hit a major slowdown Friday.
An environmental study on the effects of adding lanes will take until 2006 or longer, the Virginia Department of Transportation said. VDOT has been saying it wanted to reach an agreement with builders by September.
"The timing of certain events has changed from what we initially published," Philip Shucet, VDOT commissioner, said Friday.
There was no clear indication when construction might begin, but VDOT's signing of agreements with builders has been pushed back at least three years.
House Majority Leader Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, said the announcement left him "very unhappy. I think they're off schedule now, and I think it fairly well eliminates us from having special-project money" that might have come from the federal government.
Environmental advocates were pleased with VDOT's announcement, while a group of truckers and shippers was disappointed that the widening won't happen quickly.
Two consortiums that want to build new lanes on I-81 said they would continue with their proposals.
Shucet held out the possibility that agreements on some parts of I-81 could be signed in 2006 and work could start soon afterward. Sections of the highway that are more environmentally sensitive will be under review through 2008, Shucet said.
The builders' consortiums proposed in January to start construction earlier, one of them in the fall of 2005.
The two consortiums are Star Solutions and Fluor Virginia , and each includes 25 or more of Virginia's and the nation's largest construction companies, engineering firms and financiers.
Once VDOT and builders sign a construction agreement, more time will be needed to acquire right of way and complete the engineering plans for widening the road. Those processes have taken two years or longer on most large highway projects.
Shucet said the new timetable should not be called a delay.
Instead, it's a careful approach to environmental issues that gained new emphasis in December when the Federal Highway Administration began reviewing new standards for the National Environmental Policy Act, he said.
Griffith, however, said a delay is exactly what it is.
"I want I-81 upgraded considerably. I think it's in the best interests of the commonwealth as a whole, and I'm going to continue to work for that, but today was a setback and I'm disappointed," Griffith said.
Griffith said that on Monday he plans to call Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, chairman of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Griffith said he wants to talk about an $800 million appropriation that could be earmarked for Virginia if I-81 plans were in place by September. Griffith said the federal money might be routed to another state.
Shucet said I-81 remains a top priority.
"The bottom line to all this is that VDOT definitely will move ahead with plans for improvements to Interstate 81, but I wanted to point out it will take time," Shucet said.
VDOT decided to rethink its timing after the federal agency's shift in direction in December, to "make sure we conducted an appropriate and legally defensible environmental process," Shucet said.
One of Virginia's leading environmental advocates was delighted.
"This is a pretty significant shift in the timetable and I think it's a very positive development," said Trip Pollard of the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charlottesville.
Pollard said he had several conversations with VDOT officials after the federal highway agency began talking in December about adopting new standards for complying with the National Environmental Policy Act. He said his talks with VDOT probably did not prompt Friday's announcement, though they may have highlighted the issues.
The Southern Environmental Law Center has a pending lawsuit against VDOT over the environmental aspects of a proposed U.S. 29 bypass of Charlottesville, and other suits against highway projects in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee. "We use lawsuits as a last resort," Pollard said.
Smart Solutions, a group of truckers, manufacturers and other businesses along the I-81 corridor, was not pleased that more time will be needed for improving the highway.
The environmental study "is an important part of the process. We're disappointed that it's going to be slowed down," said Jay Smith, spokesman for Smart Solutions.
Shucet said a second reason for revising the schedule involved the consortiums. VDOT wanted to save the proposers the expense of drawing engineering plans this summer that might need major changes if environmental issues are discovered.
Rick Volk, speaking for Star Solutions, said, "We think it is important that any transportation improvements result in minimal impact to the environment. Star Solutions looks forward to moving this very necessary project forward and assisting VDOT any way we can."
Jim Carroll of Fluor Virginia said his group expected some environmental issues to arise, and VDOT's announcement Friday "wouldn't chase us out of the picture."
He said Fluor was waiting to hear what VDOT will do next.
Star Solutions' basic proposal would cost $7.75 billion and would be financed primarily by truck tolls and federal revenue. It envisions an eight-lane I-81 with truck lanes separated from cars by a concrete barrier.
Fluor Virginia's $1.84 billion proposal would put tolls on both cars and trucks without using federal revenue. It would add one lane in each direction, mostly in the median.
Shucet said the environmental study will assess much more than the highway expansion's impact on land and streams.
Federal law requires that the first phase of environmental review examine the need for the road improvements and consider multiple options such as building nothing, or building railroad tracks to shift freight from trucks on I-81.
"We are absolutely committed to looking at rail options," Shucet said, but he wouldn't say whether the additional review increased the chances of new track being built as part of the I-81 project.
Social issues also will be addressed during the environmental review, Shucet said, and those include displacing homes and businesses when right of way is acquired.
Noise may be an issue in developed areas, he said.
Questions about air pollution from trucks will also be researched.
"The general issue of air quality will need to be investigated," he said.