The Northern Virginia Daily's Political Depot

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

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Gilbert opposes transportation bill; A1

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

A watered-down version of legislation that would have put the brakes on a proposed massive expansion of Interstate 81 just isn’t good enough, according to one local member of the House of Delegates.

Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, says he’s going to try to kill Senate Joint Resolution 165, which at one time was almost identical to legislation Gilbert introduced himself.

Gilbert submitted a resolution that would have “requested” that the Virginia Department of Transportation call off its negotiations with STAR Solutions, a consortium of companies vying to improve and expand Interstate 81.

The firm put forward an unsolicited proposal to expand the highway into a 12-lane, truck tollway, with federal dollars and tolls on big rigs paying for the massive expansion.

VDOT is negotiating with the firms now while it undertakes an environmental review of the project. Department officials have said that review, not STAR Solutions’ plan, will dictate the size and nature of the expansion.

Gilbert’s HJ 143 had wide support from legislators, preservation and trucking groups in the Shenandoah and Roanoke valleys from Winchester to Bristol. It would have laid the groundwork for building an extra lane for the entire length of the roadway.

But it ran into a buzz saw in the House Rules Committee.

It was defeated after representatives of VDOT said it would tie their hands too much in improving the highway, and some members dismissed it as “fatally flawed.”

Now that the two chambers have started to take up each other’s bills, the Senate version, authored by Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Mount Solon, is before House Rules, but it’s not the version Hanger submitted to committee.

The Senate Rules Committee replaced it with a resolution that makes no reference to stopping negotiations with STAR.

Both STAR Solutions and editorial writers at large newspapers in the state have taken issue with Gilbert’s position, saying that fears of tolls on cars are unfounded.

“Let me be very clear,” wrote STAR Solutions spokesman Chris Lloyd in a letter to Gilbert and others in the I-81 corridor delegation. “Tolls on automobiles are not a part, nor have they ever been a part of our plan to improve I-81.”

“I’m keeping that letter,” Gilbert said, noting that he’s heard from others that there’s no way to make the project pay for itself without tolling automobiles.

The freshman delegate didn’t mince words when asked where he stood on Hanger’s resolution.
“VDOT managed to water it down considerably,” Gilbert said on Wednesday. “I’m going to do everything I can to kill it.”

Requests for a reaction from VDOT were referred to Secretary of Transportation Pierce R. Homer, who was not immediately available for comment.

As written, the bill does nothing to protect the Shenandoah Valley, Gilbert said.

“It’s wide open,” he said. “It doesn’t say anything substantive at all.”

Gilbert said he’s not upset with Hanger. Political realties are what they are in the Senate, and its takes 21 votes to get legislation to move forward.

A number of legislators in the General Assembly are worried about the movement of commerce along the state’s western spine and want to take action to be sure traffic doesn’t hurt the state’s economy, Gilbert said.

“That’s all well and good,” he said. “But we have to live here.”