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Location: Strasburg, Virginia

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Highway bill will pay for $141 million of I-81 work; A1

Expansion funds called ‘first step’

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

Interstate 81 is just one signature away from $141 million in federally funded expansion and safety improvements.

But the law that authorizes the spending contains two provisions that could bring an end to plans by business consortium

STAR Solutions to expand the highway into a multilane toll truck-way.

Congress approved a $286 billion highway spending bill late Friday, which provides money for things such as road construction, research, bridge maintenance, bus terminals and rail connectors among a plethora of others.

The bill contains some $938 million for Virginia over the next five years, including $100 million for the construction of dedicated truck lanes on I-81.

President Bush will sign the bill sometime next week, a White House spokesman said Tuesday.

Money is the first major stumbling block for the STAR plan to build the truck lane expansion.

STAR’s 2003 proposal to the Virginia Department of Transportation was premised on securing $1.6 billion in federal transportation funding: $800 million in the current transportation bill and $800 million in the successor bill five years down the road.

This year’s bill contained just $100 million for expansion of truck capacity via the construction of dedicated truck lanes. It contains another $41 million or so for “safety improvements.”

The other major roadblock is the inclusion of language forbidding “non-compete” clauses in projects like the truck tollway expansion of I-81.

STAR’s proposal would forbid VDOT from undertaking any improvements that could substantially draw paying trucks away from the interstate. Congress acted specifically to forbid states from spending any federal dollars on projects that come with such strings.

The bill is good for Virginia, according to members of the commonwealth’s congressional delegation.

“These funds will be helpful should [the state] decide to move forward,” said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-6th. But “the commonwealth should be careful to consider both the economic and environmental consequences of the work they undertake.”

STAR sees the money as a down payment on expansion.

The bill “supports our on-going efforts to undertake multi-modal improvements to make the I-81 corridor safer and more efficient,” said Doug Dalton, a president and CEO of English Construction in Lynchburg, a member of the STAR team.
Dalton said the group is looking forward to completing its negotiations with VDOT.

There could be more money coming later, according to the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska.

“This funding is the first step toward making substantial improvements in the I-81 corridor to serve as a national model for improving safety and reducing congestion by separating cars and trucks,” he said. “I remain committed to seeking more funds in future authorizations to fully develop this project in Virginia.”

Over at VDOT, work with STAR is continuing, according to Tamara Neale, an agency spokeswoman.

“We’re still in negotiations with them under the [Public Private Transportation Act] process,” she said. That law allows companies to submit plans for improvements to transportation facilities for government review at no cost to taxpayers.

That submittal contained a “vision” of I-81 as a much wider road with dedicated lanes for trucks, whose drivers would pay tolls of about 37 cents per mile to use the road. But just because that’s what STAR wants to do doesn’t mean that’s what will happen, Neale said.

VDOT is conducting a separate environmental review of the I-81 corridor to determine the best balance of expansion, rail improvements and environmental impacts. That review, not the proposal submitted by STAR, will govern what the highway looks like in 20 years, she said.

“They did submit a vision of what they thought I-81 could be and how they could finance it,” she said. But “when we entered into negotiations with STAR Solutions … [it was] not for them to necessarily to build truck-car separated lanes along the entire” length of I-81.

Regardless, $141 million is nothing to sneeze at.

“You can do something with that,” she said.