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Location: Strasburg, Virginia

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

VDOT study calls for six, eight lane I-81; A1

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

WINCHESTER — Rail won’t get the job done. Neither will one additional lane in either direction.

In fact, officials with the Virginia Department of Transportation said at a public hearing Tuesday that Interstate 81 will have to be expanded to a total of seven or eight lanes in the Northern Shenandoah Valley in the coming decades.

The hearing at the Winchester Travelodge was part of an ongoing study of the 325-mile stretch between West Virginia and Tennessee, as transportation officials unveil what their studies show the highway needs, and residents tell officials what they want to see happen.

For the Northern Shenandoah Valley, an eight-lane expansion is the rule, rather than the exception.

From the West Virginia line to Woodstock, the highway would be doubled in size, with a small exception between Va. 37 and the U.S. 17-50-522 exit in Frederick County.

In that three-mile segment, only one additional lane would be needed in either direction. South of Woodstock, the highway would vary from six to as many as eight lanes.

That’s not a popular idea with some in the valley. Representatives of Rail Solution and other opponents of a major expansion were set up outside the meeting, handing out fliers encouraging residents to oppose the VDOT plan.

In particular, the groups oppose a truck tollway as proposed by STAR Solutions, a consortium of companies negotiating with the state to build the expansion.

But STAR was also on hand with their own fliers, telling residents that the truck tollway was just a concept — and they’ll build whatever the state and federal government tell them to build.

“This shouldn’t be about us,” said Tyler Bishop, a spokesman for the consortium

The final decision rests with the Commonwealth Transportation Board, which is likely to come to some consensus on what to build at its meeting in June.

Officials will then tackle the knotty problem of how to pay for it. One option on the table, tolls, has met with serious opposition from both conservation groups and trucking companies.

State law currently allows for tolls to be levied on trucks on the highway, but that could change with action by the General Assembly.

Meanwhile, there was standing room only in the public hearing room, as residents of all stripes took their three minutes to give their opinion of how VDOT should proceed.

Some, like Mayor Ray Ewing of Stephens City, said they wanted wholesale changes made in small sections of the highway.

Conditions around Exit 307, the town’s sole access to the highway, have become frightful. Drivers often have to sit through “five or six [traffic light] cycles” before they can get on or off the highway, Ewing said.

“It’s not uncommon to see road rage demonstrated in this short section” of road, he said. Town residents want the exit moved south and the current bridge turned into an overpass only.

That might help clear out some of the traffic jams, according to the mayor, which make downtown look more like a parking lot than a commercial district.

John Bishop, Frederick County’s transportation planner, said the Board of Supervisors wants the “eastern loop” of Va. 37 included in the project. That should help traffic around all of Frederick County, while taking cars and trucks out of the problem areas on Winchester’s eastern edge — places like Exit 313 and Exit 315.

Others took issue with the study’s conclusions that rail won’t do the job.

“In the overall address of your transportation column, rail seems to be right far back,” said Robert Clark, of Woodstock. Federal and state officials need to throw their support behind rail, he said.

“We need to address in this case the rail system and give it equal time,” he said. Building more lanes, particularly for trucks, won’t do the job.

“No matter how many lanes you put out there, they’re going to fill it up,” he said. “Maybe one lane each way, maximum, would be all the valley would be able to stand” from an environmental point of view.

“You have not done justice to the railroad alternative,” said Jim Clarke, who lives in Frederick County near Winchester.

“The task [for highway engineers] should be to control or reduce traffic volume,” he said, rather than build more lanes for more traffic.