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

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Entire I-81 corridor endangered by expansion, group says; B4

Appalachian Regional Commission report says Knoxville to Bristol rail improvements would cost $399 million

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

NEW MARKET — A bigger, wider Interstate 81 is a threat to Virginia’s historic sites along its 325-mile corridor, according to a statewide preservation group.

The entire corridor is one of the 10 most endangered historic sites in the commonwealth, representatives of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities announced in a press conference Friday.

Expansion plans being considered by the Virginia Department of Transportation call for the highway to be widened to as many as eight lanes in Shenandoah County. That could have a disastrous impact on the corridor, according to the association.

Officials made the announcement at the New Market Battlefield State Park, just before the opening cannon volley of the weekend’s re-enactment.

While dozens of battle sites lie along the corridor, New Market is actually bisected by the highway. Visitors to one half of the site have to use a pedestrian tunnel under the road to get to the other side.

Other endangered sites include the Mt. Zion battlefield in Loudoun County, the Belmead Granary in Powhatan County, and the entire town of Fincastle, near Roanoke.

Locally, the future of I-81 expansion will have a tremendous effect on how Civil War history is preserved.

The Shenandoah Valley is “one of the great American places,” said Howard Kittel, executive director of the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation, not unlike the Great Smoky Mountains or the plains of Kansas.

Friday’s announcement is a welcome one for the foundation, he said.

“[The valley is] the place where generations of Americans settled and traversed on their way to building a nation,” he said. “Today the future of this storied valley is in our hands.”
Virginia has to do something about the highway, Kittel said.

“There is no question that I-81 desperately needs safety and operational improvements,” he said.

“But those improvements need to be reasonable and scaled to the projected natural growth in traffic demand, to what the people of the valley are willing to accept and to what the commonwealth and the nation can afford.”

A number of groups have called for the expansion of rail along the corridor to alleviate truck traffic, and thus reduce the number of new lanes that are needed. A VDOT study found that rail would at most divert 5 percent of trucks from the highway.

But the study was biased, according to David Foster, executive director of Rail Solution. It should have looked at a longer, more efficient corridor — Knoxville, Tenn., to Harrisburg, Pa.
“A lot of studies have been done to show that a corridor of 500 to 700 miles is needed for meaningful” truck diversion, he said.

That would require interstate cooperation. And it wouldn’t be cheap.

A 2004 report from the federal Appalachian Regional Commission found that rail improvements along the I-40/I-81 corridor through northeast Tennessee would cost upwards of $399 million.

But the entire project, including improvements of the I-81 corridor’s rail line in Virginia, would have a significant cost-to-benefit ratio, returning $1.38 for every dollar spent.

VDOT has extended the comment public comment period for the I-81 study until May 29.