NEWS- Back on-track: I-81 rail applauded

Last year's Interstate 81 study by the Virginia Department of Transportation suggested that railroads didn't stand much chance of getting freight off that congested highway.

"That's what they wanted you to believe, anyway," says David Foster, executive director of Rail Solution, the Shenandoah Valley-based group pushing VDOT to consider development of an intermodal rail line linking Knoxville, Tennessee, to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, along the I-81 corridor.

The transportation department reports in the executive summary to the draft environmental impact statement that it did consider a rail line as proposed by Rail Solution. But Foster disputes that.

"The main reason," says Foster, "was that the statement focused on Virginia only. They looked at the 325 miles of the I-81 corridor in the state of Virginia. And that's it."

Foster says that three previous studies agreed on one thing: the study area can't be limited to one state's borders.

"You can't get meaningful diversion to rail in a corridor less than 500 to 700 miles in length," Foster says. "Their decision to limit the focus so sharply to the I-81 corridor alone basically condemns rail to fail."

Legislation authored by Foster and carried in the Virginia General Assembly by Rockbridge Republican Delegate Ben Cline addresses what both see as the shortcomings of VDOT's most recent study. House Bill 1581 will require a comprehensive study of the impact of the use of intermodal rail on long-haul, through-truck freight traffic on I-81 in Western Virginia.

"This legislation will finally provide information and the comprehensive plan necessary to fully consider the use of rail as one means of meeting our goals for improved safety and congestion relief on I-81," says Cline. "I am extremely pleased that this legislation is moving forward."

The measure has passed both the House of Delegates and the state Senate– and is now awaiting the signature of Governor Tim Kaine. A spokesman for the governor's office indicates that he intends to sign Cline's measure into law.

Foster says rail advocates are "very unhappy" with the way the rail-diversion option was treated in the I-81 impact statement and expresses hope that the forthcoming study will have an impact on the decisions being made by VDOT.

"We have two horses in this race. We're working through the public-comment process to make sure that these issues are heard, and we're working the legislative route," says Foster. "I was worried that the legislators would say, 'Oh, it's just another study.' I was afraid that they would just toss it out.

"I was surprised that it passed as easily as it did, to be frank," Foster adds.

This is the nightmarishly wide scenario Rail Solution sees if I-81 is expanded without interstate intermodal rail improvements