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

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Senator: Plan by STAR Solutions probably dead; A1

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

Even with two attempts to scrap a plan for a major expansion of Interstate 81 in the legislative dustbin, the concept of a 12-lane, truck-tolled highway is dead, according to one Shenandoah Valley senator.

“I don’t think any of that is going to happen,” said Sen. Emmett W. Hanger, R-Mount Solon, after Tuesday’s Senate session in Richmond.

Hanger, who represents the Shenandoah Valley from south of Harrisonburg to Lexington, said a plan offered by construction consortium STAR Solutions to add multiple lanes to the highway and pay for it with tolls on big rigs probably won’t come to pass.

Hanger won approval on Tuesday for Senate Resolution 19, which asks the Virginia Department of Transportation to get on the stick with federally funded improvements to the highway, plan for rail projects to take some trucks off the road and report back next year.

SR 19, which won approval on an unrecorded voice vote, is the third attempt this year to tell VDOT what to do about the state’s longest interstate.

Both Hanger and Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, originally introduced resolutions that “requested” the department to stop dealing with STAR.

Efforts to kill the negotiations outright ran into a brick wall in the House Rules Committee earlier this year.

“It was clear that, at least in House Rules, there’s still support there for the STAR Solutions proposal — or at least they want the process to run its course,” Hanger said.

The senator went back to VDOT and came up with changes that would request “what is doable,” he said. Gilbert made no bones about his opposition to the “watered down” version of the resolution and said he’d work to kill it out
of concern that it would endorse the STAR plan.

But “I really believe we’ve basically won that argument,” Hanger said of STAR’s initial plan, due in large part to organized opposition from valley residents.

It didn’t hurt the cause when Congress balked at providing $1.6 billion for the project in last year’s transportation spending bill. I-81 did come away with $141 million for expansion, but that’s not nearly enough to do the work that STAR had in mind.

“That concept is dead in the water,” Hanger said. “There’s no money available from Congress anywhere near what they thought would be available.”

That’s one reason Hanger agreed to change his resolution from calling off the negotiations to its current form.

“I don’t want them to fiddle around any longer,” he said.

Hanger says his resolution has been unfairly construed as an endorsement of the STAR Solutions project. That’s why the House Rules Committee killed it, he said.

It does no such thing, Hanger said, and he defended it on the floor of the Senate on Tuesday when questioned by Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg.

“Is it [Sen. Hanger’s] intention by this resolution to urge VDOT to proceed with the STAR Solutions proposal?” Obenshain asked. Hanger bristled at the implication.

“I’ve been one of the more outspoken critics of the STAR proposal,” he said. “This resolution does not do that at all.”

“There’s enough things on the paper without reading things into it that aren’t there,” he said after the session.

Misinformation and confusion is unfortunate, he said, but also par for the course in Virginia’s high-speed legislature.

“It happens sometimes,” Hanger said. “We’re down here and things happen so