'Steel interstate': I-81 needs rails, says group

Many people consider the matter a done deal– but that hasn't stopped Rail Solutions from putting in its two cents worth.

"We need to make a lot of noise," group spokesman Warren Dillenbeck said recently above the din of truck traffic whirring behind him on Interstate 81 in northern Augusta County.

"We need the people of the Valley to get behind this idea," Dillenbeck said, referring to Rail Solutions' alternative plan to the widening of Interstate 81 in western Virginia.

"I've heard people say, 'Why are you even bothering? It's a done deal. Don't waste your time.' Now is the time for us to stand up and protect our Valley," Dillenbeck said.

The advocacy group offered the Virginia Department of Transportation its ideas for the expansion of rail-line capacities in the I-81 corridor on August 13.

One highlight of the plan is creation of a 21st-century railroad running roughly parallel to I-81 that would be designed to carry long-haul trucks or their trailers or containers on rail flatcars.

The so-called "steel interstate" would be a straight, dual-track line, grade-separated from roadways, according to Dillenbeck, running from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to Knoxville, Tennessee, and possibly on to New Orleans and Memphis.

The goal is to provide an alternative to long-haul trucks, which make up 28 percent of all vehicles traveling on Virginia's stretch of I-81. The Rail Solutions plan would add one lane of highway in both the northbound and southbound directions of I-81.

The cost of the plan is approximately $10 billion– $3 billion less than the state-favored proposal offered by the private corporate consortium called Star Solutions, which wants to add at least two truck-only lanes in each direction.

VDOT is currently negotiating with Star Solutions to see if the two sides can come up with an agreement to have Star serve as the contractor on whatever transportation-improvement project results from the federally mandated environmental review of the state's options for easing traffic congestion on 81.

The scope of the work to be done thereafter will be shaped by an ongoing environmental review, according to VDOT spokesperson Laura Bullock.

"This is a good example of how the public can have input into this process," Bullock said of Rail Solutions' alternative plan.

"We want to hear from as many people as we can so we can consider as many different alternatives as possible. We were in discussions with members of the Rail Solutions group, and we encouraged them to present what they had as soon as they could," Bullock said.

"It's crucial at this stage, when we're still formulating a project, to be able to identify whatever problems might be out there before we try to come up with possible answers," Bullock said.