1 I-81 Update July 2007 Status of I-81 The Federal Highway Administration issued a preliminary record of decision on the I-81 Tier I Environmental Impact Statement in June, now under a 120-day comment period. VDOT plans tolling on I-81, including the option to toll cars. With a toll application before the FHWA, and highway widening broken down into segments of independent utility, tolling could begin immediately. VDOT plans major highway expansion 69 percent widened to eight lanes and the remainder widened to six lanes at a cost of up to $11.4 billion. Highway expansion calls for a by-pass highway around Harrisonburg, which could cut through Rockingham County s agricultural reserve and two National Historic Landmark Civil War Battlefields. The VDOT plan blocks future consideration of a multi-state rail alternative to shift truck traffic off the highway, even though the General Assembly s mandated rail study is not yet complete. Norfolk Southern recently announced that a $2 billion investment in the I-81 rail corridor would take one million trucks off the highway system, $833,333 per mile compared to VDOT s proposed highway widening in Virginia, $33 million per mile. VDOT is negotiating with STAR Solutions, the PPTA applicant, no-bid contracts to construct safety improvements, after rejecting the consortium s truck lane proposal as too costly and not viable. Request for Intervention We need legislators and other elected officials to intervene with the Governor, the Commonwealth Transportation Board, the Secretary of Transportation and the FHWA. Call on the FHWA to withdraw the FEIS, place it on hold and require VDOT to revise its analysis of the rail option based on the results of the state s multi-state rail study. Call on VDOT to discontinue negotiations with STAR and re-bid the safety projects on I-81 in a fully-competitive procurement to secure the best deal for Virginia taxpayers. Require VDOT to clarify when and how it will seek tolls on I-81 and whether those tolls could be applied to cars under a federal interstate tolling pilot project or other federal and state law. Reject plans for new bypasses, such as the one in Harrisonburg, for which VDOT failed to analyze community impacts in the FEIS. Reevaluate the FEIS analysis to consider and adopt targeted solutions to targeted problems on the highway corridor, such as: a. Multi-state rail investments to reduce long-distance freight traffic, the largest share of truck traffic on I-81. b. Local, urban area fixes to I-81 and improved local street connections and land use planning, to reduce local peak hour commuter traffic. c. Fixes to specific safety problems identified by VDOT along just seven percent of the corridor, rather than costly and destructive highway widening throughout the corridor.
2 Analysis: VDOT I-81 Tier I Final Environmental Impact Statement Prepared for the Shenandoah Valley Network of community conservation groups by Stewart Schwartz, director, Coalition for Smarter Growth in Washington, DC, and a founding member of the ReConnecting Virginia campaign for better transportation options. Tolling: VDOT concludes in the FEIS that they will continue to seek approval from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) for I-81 to be a federal interstate tolling pilot project. We believe that VDOT s application is the only one filed with FHWA at this time. A federal tolling pilot project allows for both cars and trucks to be tolled. State legislation that limits tolling for I-81 to trucks under a Public-Private Transportation Act project could be overridden by federal law in the event FHWA approves I-81 as a federal interstate tolling pilot project. Exansion Segments Favor Tolling and Foreclose Rail and Local Solutions: VDOT s selection of Segments of Individual Utility (SIU) with specific breakpoints for these segments at major intersecting interstates or state highways appears to be designed to facilitate tolling, but not to address the specific traffic problems identified in the study. For example, SIU s are shown between I-66 and the state line, between I-66 and Route 33 at Harrisonburg, and between Route 33 Harrisonburg and I-64, which would be natural tolling segments that could be handed to STAR. But, by placing these breakpoints in the mid-point of urban areas like Harrisonburg, road improvements will not be targeted to the significant local traffic problems on I-81 in these areas. Use of these shorter segments by VDOT will also ensure that longer distance and multistate rail improvements can be rejected as an alternative in the Tier 2 study for these segments of independent utility because rail works to shift freight from trucks only at longer distances. Furthermore, the multi-state rail solution will simply lack legal standing as a preferred option in Tier 2 because VDOT has so far succeeded in keeping it out of the Tier I FEIS. Therefore, whatever the benefits of a multi-state rail program resulting from the separate and ongoing rail study, VDOT will be able to proceed to a full 8-lane expansion of I-81. VDOT s Continued Negotiations with STAR are Uncompetitive and May Lead to Higher Costs for Taxpayers: According to VDOT, they have continued negotiations with STAR despite the rejection in the FEIS of STAR s dedicated and semi-separated truck lane proposal. VDOT also states that there will be no opportunity for public comment on the negotiated agreement. Yet, VDOT is proposing a very different project with an initial phase that involves specific safety improvements and truck climbing lanes in very limited locations. VDOT is proposing to use federal earmarks for I-81 to fund this initial phase. VDOT s longer term proposal in the FEIS is for expansion up to 8-lanes (un-separated) along specific segments of the highway, but this is also a different project from that proposed by STAR. These are new and very different projects proposed by VDOT for I-81 and therefore should be competitively bid to ensure that Virginia taxpayers get the best possible deal for their money. Furthermore, because the targeted safety improvements would use federal earmarks and not involve contributions of private funding as envisioned under the PPTA, this is not an appropriate project for the PPTA. It should instead be competitively bid under traditional procurement procedures. A similar uncompetitive situation involving the use of the PPTA for the Dulles Rail project (also where no private
3 dollars are being contributed by the contractor) has resulted in a price tag that has risen from $1.8 billion to $2.7 billion. Impact of Two New Bypasses Not Addressed: The FEIS proposes two potential new bypasses, one of which is around Harrisonburg, Virginia. Federal agencies commenting on the DEIS have noted that VDOT has failed to study or evaluate the impact on resources from these new bypasses. Minor notations about these projects in the DEIS/FEIS mean that the public has been kept largely in the dark about these proposals or their impact. In recent years there has been extensive public outcry against proposals for Harrisonburg bypasses. The Rockingham Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) rejected full bypasses for Harrisonburg. Based upon traffic data, the recent SE Harrisonburg bypass study resulted in the selection not of a bypass, but of one priority east-west local road and consideration of a second. Therefore, it is simply not appropriate for VDOT use the I-81 EIS to revive the Harrisonburg bypass as an alternative, nor to do so without full consideration of the impact on community resources. VDOT Ignores Overwhelming Public Opinion: VDOT s proposal is completely at odds with public opinion. The I-81 DEIS generated record public response for a highway study according to senior Virginia transportation officials. An estimated 1000 people attended the DEIS public hearings. The FEIS reports that of 2600 written comments received, 80% opposed tolls and 78% of the comments favored rail alternatives. Yet VDOT continues to press for tolls and to foreclose effective rail alternatives. In addition, there were extensive comments on the need to preserve and enhance the communities, history, scenic beauty, and the economy in the corridor, with a more appropriate solution than tolls and an 8-lane urban highway.
4 Analysis: Cost of Rail Investments v. I-81 Widening in Virginia Prepared for the Shenandoah Valley Network of community conservation groups by John Hutchinson, principal of the Jennings Gap Partnership, Staunton, VA. Norfolk Southern announced that its newest intermodal rail initiative, the $2 billion I-81 Crescent Corridor, could take one million trucks off the highway system on June 6, 2007, the same day the Federal Highway Administration issued a Record of Decision approving the Virginia Department of Transportation s $11.4 billion plan to greatly widen the highway throughout Virginia. The impact of the railroad s proposal for major upgrades and freight diversion have not been studied by VDOT nor is it included in the agency s I-81 Final Environmental Impact Statement, approved by the FHWA and now under a 120-day comment period. While VDOT did include some discussion of rail and its ability to divert freight (and thus ease the major source of congestion) on I-81, VDOT and FHWA concluded early on in the planning process that it was not reasonable for this Tier 1 EIS to evaluate multistate rail improvements (ROD page 6). VDOT s rail analysis concluded that under a best case scenario, an investment of $3.76 billion in rail improvements would result in the diversion of less than six percent of the truck freight on I-81 to rail. This translates to a diversion of about 250,000 trucks a year from the interstate (FEIS, page 3-15). Based on this projection, VDOT concluded a rail concept is not being proposed to be advanced to Tier 2 of this NEPA study (FEIS page xvii). Despite VDOT s claim that Norfolk Southern was thoroughly consulted during the analysis, the agency and the rail road came to very different conclusions regarding how much freight could be diverted and at what cost. Norfolk Southern has concluded that more than one million trucks can be diverted from the corridor (four times as many as VDOT estimated) at roughly half the cost ($2 billion versus $3.7 billion in rail upgrades). The Norfolk Southern estimate represents a cost of $833,333 per mile for rail improvements, versus approximately $33 million per mile for highway upgrades in Virginia proposed by VDOT. The Commonwealth Transportation Board and the legislature have directed the state Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) to conduct a multi-state Freight Rail Study in cooperation with Norfolk Southern Railway to help determine the level of rail improvements that would be needed to divert a maximum amount of truck traffic from I-81. Results of that study are expected at the end of July. VDOT claims that the Results of the DRPT I-81 Freight Rail Study will be considered in Tier 2 of the environmental impact process, however, the FEIS approved by the FHWA excludes rail improvements and other targeted options in favor of major highway widening. In other words, VDOT and FHWA have blocked any major emphasis on rail freight diversion in the future.
5 Draft Letter Regarding Competitive Bidding on I-81 Dear Secretary Pierce Homer: Thank you for your efforts to make safety improvements along dangerous sections of I- 81 a priority. I am concerned, however, about reports coming out of the Virginia Department of Transportation indicating that targeted safety fixes along I-81 may not be put out for competitive bidding. These reports indicate that VDOT is negotiating solely with STAR Solutions for what are very different and much smaller projects than the one used to justify use of the Public-Private Transportation Act (PPTA). Former VDOT Commissioner Shucet initiated the PPTA process for I-81 following STAR Solutions submission of an unsolicited proposal for separated truck lanes. The Commissioner argued that the PPTA would be used to bring economies of scale and private capital to bear on this huge, $13 billion project. However, the specific designbuild project proposed by STAR Solutions was rejected as an alternative in the Final Environmental Impact Statement. Furthermore, the Commonwealth Transportation Board has not granted approval for end-to-end capacity expansion and has required additional review prior to significant capacity expansion. Therefore, the original justification for using the PPTA and for negotiating with STAR Solutions -- such as economies of scale -- no longer applies. These specific safety projects should be put out to competitive bid under standard Virginia procurement practice. Without competitive bidding, we will never know whether the Commonwealth could provide more safety improvements per dollar invested. At the federal level, the use of large contractors under no-bid contracts has cost taxpayers, but officials have sought to justify it as due to emergency and wartime conditions. But these conditions do not apply in this case. Lack of competitive bidding denies local building contractors equal opportunity to bid on the projects, denying fairness and access to employment and business opportunities for a broad spectrum of Virginians. Frequent resort to the PPTA for typical construction projects could also create a cartel-like situation where a few very large contractors have inordinate control over construction pricing. I would appreciate it if you would address my concerns about the contracting approach being taken by VDOT. Sincerely, NAME Title Cc: Gov. Tim Kaine