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, March 02, 2006

Second I-81 Resolution Dies in Committee; B1

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

RICHMOND — A second effort to tell the Virginia Department of Transportation to back off on its Interstate 81 expansion plans came up short on Wednesday.

But that’s not a bad thing, according to the author of the original legislation.

A resolution by Sen. Emmett W. Hanger, R-Mount Solon, was tabled in a 7-6 vote in the House Rules Committee. Originally, it was identical to legislation by Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, but was modified after Gilbert’s bill died in the same committee.

Both bills would have “requested” VDOT to stop its negotiations with STAR Solutions, a consortium of firms seeking to expand I-81. One proposal from the firm would finance as many as a dozen lanes, with some dedicated to trucks and tolls on big rigs.

“We’re back to square one,” Gilbert said after the hearing.

But the situation isn’t a total loss, he said. No action means legislators haven’t spoken against proposed I-81 expansion, but it also means they haven’t endorsed it.

Gilbert’s bill ran head-first into a buzz-saw in House Rules earlier this year, and Hanger said he talked with VDOT about how to change the bill to make it more palatable.

“We basically re-tailored this to do what is feasible,” said Hanger.

As drawn, the bill would spend federal transportation dollars for the highway to make immediate improvements, giving priority to projects that can be accomplished within the existing right of way.

It also would allow negotiations with STAR Solutions to continue.

That’s still too much, said Del. Leo C. Wardrup, R-Virginia Beach, chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

“We’re getting into meddling with things that could cause us a great deal of grief later on,” said Wardrup. Legislators shouldn’t be telling VDOT how to negotiate with the consortium.

Wardrup’s criticism of Gilbert’s legislation got a few knowing looks and smiles from around the room. Gilbert, an imposing figure at more than 6 feet tall, was standing directly behind Wardrup in the cramped, standing-room-only conference room.

He was not smiling.

“Is he behind me?” Wardrup asked, without turning around, which drew chuckles. “He’s big, too.”

House Majority Leader Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, sided with Wardrup, and said both resolutions were little more than “meddling” with the process.

Other legislators who are closer to the Shenandoah Valley took the opposite view.

“I don’t think it goes far enough,” said Del. Steven Landes, R-Weyers Cave. Transportation officials are paying far too much attention to the contractors who would likely do the improvement work.

“VDOT is not listening to the people,” he said. “We need to make sure the people are being listened to.”

But the people aren’t exactly speaking with a unified voice, said Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City.

If anyone is familiar with the needs of I-81, it’s a delegate who drives more than 220 miles on the highway to get to Richmond, he said.

“The problem we have is the people along [Interstate] 81 can’t agree on what needs to be done,” Kilgore said.