NEWS- Star crossed: Delegates attack I-81 plans

A group of state legislators are trying to come up with a new approach to dealing with traffic congestion on Interstate 81. As detailed in the Hook's January 19 cover story ["Trucks or tracks"], a private group called Star Solutions has proposed an I-81 expansion that could include tolls on trucks and as many as 12 lanes.

"Interstate 81 has long been a problem for the citizens of Western Virginia," says Weyers Cave Delegate Steve Landes. "We have a duty to these citizens to make it safer for them to travel."

Included in the legislative package presented at a January news conference in Richmond was a budget amendment from Rockbridge Delegate Ben Cline to provide for the addition of 10 state troopers to patrol I-81, and a resolution from Woodstock Delegate Todd Gilbert calling for the Virginia Department of Transportation to halt all I-81 expansion negotiations with Star Solutions.

While Gilbert's bill went down to defeat in the House Rules Committee February 8, the freshman Republican vowed that his bill was "but the opening volley in what will be a long war to stop the ruinous, grandiose, and unnecessary exploitation of Virginia's historical significance and natural beauty."

Gilbert vowed to fight on and blasted his opponents.

"Opposition to my resolution was led by delegates from Northern and Tidewater Virginia, places that have already been paved over," said Gilbert. "Folks from those areas of the Commonwealth have little awareness of Western Virginia's rural culture."

A bill from Cline that would have similarly forced VDOT's hand with Star– requiring that areas along the I-81 corridor with high traffic volumes and congestion levels be identified and proposals solicited from private entities to address improvements in those specific areas– was also tabled by the House Transportation Committee.

Their attempts to at least address the issue have earned praise from private groups opposed to what they consider "paving the Valley."

"Delegates Gilbert and Cline are working hard to bring reasonable solutions to the future of I-81," says Kim Sandum, president of Rockingham's Community Alliance for Preservation.

The leader of the Virginia Trucking Association also lauds these efforts to slow Star.

"These legislators are trying to apply common sense to a process that has gone on too long and has done nothing to actually improve I-81," says Association director Dale Bennett.

"The legislators understand the needs of I-81, the citizens understand the needs of I-81, and the businesses along I-81 understand the needs– and they aren't truck lanes with tolls," Bennett says.

Critics suggest that this is how Star Solutions would make I-81 look.