|Saturday, March 06, 2004
Highway chief OKs I-81 plan
|The decision by Commissioner Philip Shucet moves Virginia closer to an agreement for Star Solutions' eight-lane concept.
By Ray Reed
Virginia's transportation commissioner added his approval Friday to the Interstate 81 widening proposal by the Star Solutions builders consortium.
The decision by Commissioner Philip Shucet moves Virginia closer to an agreement for what he called "the largest design-build horizontal project anybody has ever embarked on."
Virginia Department of Transportation staffers will begin negotiating with Star toward a comprehensive agreement, framing a big picture of the ways they'll work together until an environmental study is complete two or more years from now.
An eight-lane concept for I-81 is the general idea shaping the negotiations, but parts of the highway could have more lanes or fewer, depending on environmental issues, Shucet said.
The agreement allows independent consultants to do a study required by the National Environmental Policy Act to evaluate alternatives to the widening and analyze "potential social, environmental and economic impacts," Shucet said.
The agreement will not establish tolls on I-81 or set a price for construction. Those can't be decided until the environmental process has revealed what it's possible to build, Shucet said. Preliminary cost figures run as high as $13 billion.
Terms probably will include a provision for VDOT to buy information that Star Solutions may have developed if it can be used in the environmental review, Shucet said.
Such information would be independently evaluated by VDOT or its environmental consultant, Shucet said, because "we have to do it in a fashion that does not jeopardize the independent nature of the environmental study."
The agreement will set a framework for:
n Ways to handle possible outcomes of the environmental process, including a possibility that Star Solutions might want to opt out of building some parts of the project.
n Responding to developments at the federal level, where Star Solutions hopes to get $1.6 billion for a test project to build truck-only lanes on I-81. Star seeks $800 million in the transportation act that's now being scaled down in the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
n Establishing the kind of risks that will be assumed by whatever legal entity Star Solutions establishes to sign agreements with Virginia. That requires VDOT to anticipate "what might happen if things don't work out financially" with bonds that Star Solutions plans to sell for construction funds, Shucet said.
n Negotiating a noncompete clause, which Star Solutions says is necessary to protect its bonds if Virginia should decide to upgrade other highways in the I-81 corridor.
n Enlisting Star Solutions' help in talking with neighboring states about upgrading a freight corridor at least 500 miles long.
That includes upgrading railroad tracks, possibly with public funds.
"I've been clear that I believe rail is a part of the solution," Shucet said, and people shouldn't adopt the belief that VDOT's choosing Star Solutions' plan leaves rail out.
Star Solutions proposed upgrading tracks in the Manassas-to-Front Royal area at a cost of about $110 million, saying that would take 5 percent of total truck traffic off I-81.
Citizen groups say more effort is needed to improve rail lines, and the environmental consultants are including rail in their study.
"If anyone says that we have discounted rail as an option by selecting Star Solutions, they are just simply wrong. That is not a correct statement," Shucet said.
Although financing of I-81 won't be included in the comprehensive agreement, it was up for discussion Friday because a Virginia Senate committee tabled the possibility of car tolls on I-81 until next year.
"I expect that issue to be revisited," Shucet said. "I'm very concerned about a fair and equitable tolling system."
An advisory panel that recommended the Star Solutions concept to Shucet also recommended that both cars and trucks be tolled. The panel said truck tolls needed to be held at 20 cents or less per mile, and the only apparent way for that to work out financially was to toll cars.
Pierce Homer, the VDOT assistant commissioner who headed the panel, said tolls were not a good solution but they were the only one available.
Shucet also addressed a fear expressed in some quarters that Virginia would have to give up federal funds for its overall highway program if it were to get federal funds for truck-only lanes as a test concept.
"We have been clear that is not likely to be acceptable," he said.
"Our federal aid program is important to us statewide. We can't afford to have our federal programs be all on Interstate 81. We just could not accept that," Shucet said.