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A service for our readers outside the Northern Shenandoah Valley... a sampling of The Daily's political coverage, plus unofficial, 'reporter's notebook' stuff. And occasional dry humor...

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Location: Strasburg, Virginia

Friday, January 13, 2006

Gilbert moves for new VDOT interstate plan; A1

Idea would add one lane in each direction on I-81

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

RICHMOND — Fixing Interstate 81 is important, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of the character of the Shenandoah Valley, according to members of the local legislative delegation.

And there’s a move afoot in the General Assembly to put the matter to bed permanently.

Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, introduced a resolution late Wednesday that “requests” the Virginia Department of Transportation to come up with a plan to add one lane in both directions on the highway, with more around cities and other population centers.

It also tells the department that legislators want the $141 million earmark in the latest federal transportation bill used for “truck only” lanes and climbing lanes in the mountains.

“Valley legislators along Interstate 81 feel the STAR Solutions plan will in the long run hurt citizens in the valley and everyone who uses the road,” he said. “It’s going to modify the character of the valley forever if we build an eight- or 12-lane monstrosity through there.”

STAR Solutions, a consortium of contractors, has submitted a $6.3 billion public-private partnership plan to expand the roadway and separate cars and trucks, which had drawn both cheers and protest. Count Gilbert among those against the plan.

One more lane, even if just for trucks, is a “reasonable and measured approach,” he said. “We don’t need to get ahead of ourselves. We don’t want a toll road running through the valley, either. People shouldn’t have to pay for a road they’ve already paid for once.”

Does it have the votes to make it though either chamber? It’s hard to say right now, said Del. Clay Athey, R-Front Royal.

“We’ll see,” he said, smiling. “I’m hopeful.”

If nothing else, the resolution is an expression of the desires of the people who live in the top end of the valley.

“I think that’s consistent with most of us in the Shenandoah Valley caucus,” Athey said.

VDOT officials are also studying the corridor. An environmental impact study is under way. That document, not the STAR Solutions proposal, will determine what an expanded I-81 looks like, according to the agency.

Gilbert said he put the legislation in the form of a resolution and used the “request” language out of respect for the executive branch. The Commonwealth Transportation Board and secretary of transportation are charged with such decisions normally.

“We’re talking a separation of powers kind of issue here,” he said. And when the legislature has an opinion with a majority in both houses, Gilbert added, people listen.

Passage of the resolution would tell state government “this is the mood and will of the General Assembly, lets them know this is how we feel about it, and lets them know that we’re serious about it,” he said.

There is a chance that additional bills will come forward to the same effect, but that will carry the force of law, subject to discussions with the Senate.

Sen. Emmett Hangar, R-Mount Solon, put in a resolution in 2005 that would have forced VDOT to stop its negotiations with the consortium until the General Assembly gave it the go-ahead.

That bill never even came up for a vote in the Senate Transportation Committee.

“I’m interested in being more direct, as well,” Gilbert said. “This is a good start.”

The legislation is House Joint Resolution 143.