by Roger Diedrich
With a stake in the heart of the Mattaponi reservoir project, the I-81 battle seems poised to take over the distinction of Virginia’s epic environmental campaign. It was 2002 when we started to see multiple proposals to widen I-81 to address the congestion and safety issues resulting from heavy truck traffic.
Private corporations used Virginia’s flawed Public Private Transportation Act process to promote their corporate interest. The Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) did not fairly consider a rail option. However, massive outpouring of citizen objection assured defeat of the STAR Solutions proposal to privatize I-81 and construct a tollway with four truck-only lanes.
RAIL Solution was organized to rally citizen and loal government opposition to the costly and environmentally destructive proposals to widen 325 miles of I-81 from four to eight lanes. RAIL Solution advanced the notion that upgrading existing Norfolk Southern track would be a far cheaper, more economically advantageous, safer and environmentally preferable approach.
Allies like Sierra Club, Virginia Conservation Network, Virginia Organizing Project, and land and historic preservation groups joined the fight. RAIL Solution’s vision is that I-81 corridor between Harrisburg, PA, and Knoxville, TN, should become the pilot project for a National Steel Interstate System (NSIS). This concept would build infrastructure for fast passenger and freight rail across the nation, increasing productivity of rail transport just as the Eisenhower Interstate System did for highways.
This vision is congruent with the Obama Administration’s interest in an energy-efficient 21st century rail infrastructure. Currently, freight is one of the fastest growing contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates trains produce one third the emissions of trucks per ton-mile of freight. Electrifying the rail line as dirty sources on the grid are replaced would further reduce carbon emissions while reducing reliance on a foreign energy source.
Congressman Rick Boucher proposed a federal study of the potential for a Steel Interstate in the five-state I-81 corridor. Virginia Secretary of Transportation Pierce Homer announced if such a study were approved, he would not accept the money.
In 2006, Governor Kaine promised to fix safety spots on I-81 first, while also addressing rail capacity. Instead of addressing any of the seven unsafe locations identified in its EIS, VDOT is using $142 million earmarked for freight safety to construct two large projects expanding the highway to an eight lane profile.
In 2006, the Virginia General Assembly unanimously passed H 1581, requiring a multi-state rail study of the I-81 corridor. The charge to the Department of Rail and Public Transit was to determine the cost for diverting 60 percent of through-state truck traffic from I-81 to intermodal rail. VDOT estimated it is necessary to divert up to 60 percent of the trucks to obviate the need for more highway capacity.
While the General Assembly charge was clearly meant to look forward to what sufficient public investment in rail infrastructure could provide, Secretary Homer stated the study is based on current corridor and market conditions. This assures the study results, expected to be released soon, will be meaningless—comparing the freight-carrying potential of a late 20th Century highway to a 19th Century railroad.
Sierra Club members should talk to their state legislators about this issue and ask that they assure the legislative effort is not nullified by a rogue state Secretary of Transportation.
Roger Diedrich is Virginia Chapter Smart Growth and Transportation Chair