|Saturday, February 14, 2004
Panel gives Star's plans green light for 1-81
|Star Solutions' concept for widening the interstate was selected over Fluor Virginia's.
By Ray Reed
Star Solutions, the builders' consortium with an eight-lane concept for widening Interstate 81, won the approval Friday of an advisory panel that decided a competitor's six-lane proposal wasn't enough.
Construction should be financed by tolls on both cars and trucks, along with $1.6 billion in federal money for a pilot project that provides truck-only lanes, panel members said.
The approval doesn't guarantee that I-81 will be rebuilt to eight lanes. A final decision on its width depends on an environmental review, which began last month and will run into 2006 or later.
Star Solutions' selection still hinges on its ability to bring in the federal funding that, at this point, is only a concept in the transportation act that's being debated in Congress.
Star Solutions also must submit, perhaps by adapting its proposal, to requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act.
Pierce Homer, chairman of the panel, which spent four months reviewing proposals by Star and competing consortium Fluor Virginia, said it's critical that Star follow through with the federal funding and environmental compliance.
There were other conditions, too - so many that it could easily take two years for the Virginia Department of Transportation to negotiate a comprehensive agreement with Star Solutions.
The panel's vote was 9-2 for Star Solutions.
Officially called the I-81 Public Private Transportation Act Advisory Panel, the group laid out a framework Friday for the Star Solutions endorsement it will send to VDOT Commissioner Philip Shucet and state Transportation Secretary Whitt Clement.
Tolls were high on the list of recommendations. The panel was greeted Friday morning by new report from a consultant that analyzed how many trucks would switch to other roads if a toll were imposed on I-81.
The panel agreed that I-81 can't be widened without tolls. Conventional financing would require a 13-cent increase in the state gas tax, dedicated to I-81, said panelist Barbara Reese, VDOT's chief financial officer. That tax could never win General Assembly approval, panel members said.
The answer came down to this: Unless the toll is 20 cents per mile or less, too many trucks would avoid I-81. Toll revenues would drop too low to repay the bonds Star Solutions plans to issue to pay for construction.
The only way to keep truck tolls under the 20-cent threshold is to also toll cars, the panel decided.
But there's a further wrinkle: A straight toll of 20 cents on trucks would put an unbearable economic hardship on Western Virginia truckers who have few alternatives to using I-81.
Long-haul trucks starting from the deep South could use Interstate 95, or possibly Interstates 64 and 79 through Kentucky and West Virginia, to avoid tolls on I-81.
Reese said the prospect of switching more trucks to I-95 was terrifying because it would add congestion on a highway that already carries as many trucks as I-81, plus lots more cars.
The solution, the panel suggested, is a carefully structured toll pricing system aimed at keeping the cost bearable for trucks and cars. The pricing would also have to pass muster with Wall Street investors buying the bonds.
Cost was another key factor. Although Star Solutions' conceptual price added up to $13 billion, the negotiation process is expected to bring it down considerably, said panelist Mal Kerley, VDOT's chief engineer.
Homer said the widening of I-81's 325 miles should be divided into phases. Areas with the greatest need should be widened first, he said. Needs are determined by safety and congestion issues.
Opportunities for switching truck freight to railroads, thereby diminishing the number of trucks on I-81, were reviewed during the meeting Friday. But panelists barely mentioned rail when it came time to vote.
They did say they want rail to be part of their recommendations, though.
The I-81 corridor is going to become increasingly crowded with truck traffic from Mexico and the South into the Northeast, the panel learned during the past four months.
Freight volume could increase by almost 50 percent by 2020, which could make even an improved I-81 so crowded that rail would offer the best alternative for some shippers.
Star Solutions has proposed improving some rail lines in the Manassas-to-Front Royal area, which it says would take about 5 percent of truck traffic off I-81 in that area.
But if rail lines were substantially upgraded through at least five states in the I-81 corridor, trains could carry as much as 30 percent of the freight now moving by truck, consultant studies said.
Several panelists said their recommendation would be that Virginia work with other states to upgrade the rail lines, preferably by working for federal funding for that purpose.
Two economies are affected, Homer said. One is a global concept involving international trade.
The other is the economy of Western Virginia, which depends on small and medium-size companies whose profit margins can't absorb a 20-cent-per-mile truck toll.