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

Friday, February 03, 2006

Gilbert’s resolution on interstate upgrade picks up supporters; B5

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

WOODSTOCK — A proposal from one local legislator to put the brakes on plans to expand Interstate 81 to a super-tollway picked up some major bipartisan support on Thursday.

Republican and Democratic legislators from the length of the Shenandoah Valley came out in support of legislation by Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, that would stop Virginia Department of Transportation negotiations with STAR Solutions to expand the highway by multiple lanes and pay for the work via tolls.

VDOT officials have said their environmental impact review, not the STAR Solutions proposal, would dictate what the new and improved I-81 looks like.

Speaking at a press conference in Richmond, Del. Clay Athey, R-Front Royal, and five other delegates, along with Sen. John Edwards, D-Roa-noke, said they’d support Gilbert’s legislation and other efforts to make I-81 safer.

Gilbert’s resolution, HJ 143, calls for adding one lane in each direction to the highway.

While the final wording isn’t set in stone, the valley delegation agrees with its sentiment.

Everyone who has signed on to the bill so far agrees that the road needs work in its most congested sections first, and that “we don’t want this to be a toll road,” Gilbert said after the press conference.

“Shenandoah County, as far as I know, has the longest stretch of I-81” in Virginia, he said. The highway runs down the spine of the county for about 35 miles.

“We literally have the most to lose if this goes through like they’re talking about,” he said.

The delegate and his staff are “working with folks back home to tinker with the language to strengthen the language in some respects,” he said.

At the same time, “I’ve talked to the folks on the other side,” he said. No one backing his resolution has a problem with the contractors consortium represented by STAR Solutions doing the work on the highway.

It’s just the kind of work that’s being talked about that causes the problem, Gilbert said.

“Calling for a halt to all negotiations is something that we might be able to pull back from” if STAR Solutions is “able to change what they’re doing.”

STAR has already invested significant amounts of money in the project, he said, and the delegation doesn’t want it to be forced out of the project.

“Whoever does the work is secondary” to the kind of work being done, he said.

Another new initiative with support from the group is from Del. Ben Cline, R-Amherst, which would put 10 more state troopers on the highway via a $1.9 million amendment to the 2006-08 biennial budget proposed by former Gov. Mark R. Warner.

“An important step toward enhanced safety on I-81 is addressing the runaway speeds that intimidate drivers and endanger lives,” he says in a statement issued after the press conference. “Additional troopers will provide the necessary staffing to allow for more patrols and a safer highway.”

Gilbert’s resolution has been referred to the House Committee on Rules. No hearings on the bill had been scheduled as of late Thursday.