Caucus’ Eye On 81
Gilbert Co-Leads Effort To Ensure Upgrades Safe
Posted: January 24, 2013
Congested traffic snakes along the northbound lane of Interstate 81 near Mount Crawford on Wednesday. A newly formed General Assembly caucus is dedicating itself to studying safe ways of dealing with I-81 traffic flow in the Valley. (Photos by Michael Reilly / DN-R)
Traffic moves north at Interstate 81’s Exit 240 near Mount Crawford on Wednesday. Proposals to ease traffic flow on the interstate will require careful consideration of safety issues, according to leaders of the new Northern I-81 Caucus in the General Assembly.
Ten legislators comprise the Northern I-81 Caucus, led by Dels. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, and Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge. Their mission is to find the safest approach to widening I-81, if and when it is expanded in the Valley.
The group will meet for the first time on Feb. 6. Its members include Sens. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg and Emmett Hanger, R-Mount Solon; and Dels. Tony Wilt, R-Broadway, and Steve Landes, R-Weyers Cave.
“We want to make sure that safety concerns are absolutely the primary motivating factor in any construction plans,” Gilbert said. “The idea of a massive mega-highway, if the potential for that still exists, we want to make sure our voices are heard.”
The Virginia Department of Transportation has no plans to expand the highway locally, Staunton District spokeswoman Sandy Myers said.
The district includes Harrisonburg and Rockingham and Shenandoah counties.
VDOT ended negotiations five years ago with a consortium of companies that proposed eight to 12 lanes of interstate statewide. The consortium, STAR Solutions, pulled that $13 billion project.
VDOT has since focused on spot improvements to I-81, such as truck-climbing lanes in Rockbridge County.
A 2007 report that the department conducted also identified the need for one or two additional lanes in each direction at different points of I-81, including between Staunton and the I-66 interchange in Warren County.
Myers said the report does not constitute a plan to create more lanes, adding that VDOT will further study a specific area if widening is planned.
That level of study is under way between Christiansburg and Roanoke.
But not everyone is convinced that more expansion is off the table.
“I think we still have every reason to believe that long-term planning still contemplates a wider build-out than what may be happening right now,” Gilbert said. “If they can secure a funding component again, it would be wide open. We don’t have any reason to believe they have scrapped that [eight- to 12-lane] plan completely.”
Funding, though, easily remains the major question mark. The 2007 report designates tolls on vehicles as the revenue-producer to pay for any of the multibillion-dollar expansion options.
In 2008, Gilbert and Obenshain responded by carrying legislation into law that would require General Assembly approval before tolls can be placed on I-81.
“But it only takes a majority in both houses [to pass],” Gilbert said.
He is a proponent of adding one lane to I-81 in both directions through the Valley. It’s just a matter of keeping safety and the preservation of private property and Civil War battlefields in mind, which VDOT’s plan does not, Gilbert said.
For example, the 2007 study says more than 900 acres of developed land in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, some of it around exit 245 in the city, could be affected by expansion.
“We just want to make it clear to VDOT that we are prepared to act in unison to address whatever concerns may arise,” Gilbert said.
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