Legislators form new Valley caucus focused on I-81 issues
Page News and Courier The Shenandoah Valley-Herald The Valley Banner The Warren SentinelRICHMOND — A new caucus has been formed by 10 legislators who represent the counties and districts that are impacted by I-81.
Del. Todd Gilbert (R-Woodstock) and Del. Ben Cline (R-Lexington) are co-chairs of the group. Other members include Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg) and Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (R-Shenandoah).
Gilbert says the group’s primary purpose is to assure that the views of Valley residents are heard should the Virginia Department of Transportation revive past proposals, or develop new ones, to widen I-81, a major north-south commercial route that runs down the center of the Valley.
From 2003 to 2007, according to VDOT’s website, STAR Solutions, a consortium of transportation consultants, developed a proposed $13 billion project that called for widening I-81 from four lanes to between 8 and 12 lanes for its entire length, to ease congestion and to separate car and truck traffic, and to convert the highway into a toll road.
Gilbert and Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg) successfully sponsored bills in 2008 that would have required General Assembly approval for tolls on I-81.
Shortly afterward, VDOT dropped the STARS Solution plan, and has since focused primarily upon improving specific areas of I-81.
But Gilbert and other caucus members believe there is still a possibility that VDOT may reconsider widening the interstate in the future. If that does happen, they want to be sure that it is done in the safest and most environmentally acceptable way.
Gilbert is not totally opposed to expansion of I-81. He favors the addition of one lane in both directions, but wants to be sure that any proposal adheres both to safety and environmental concerns.
Among those environmental concerns is preservation of both private property and the Valley’s many Civil War battlefield sites.
In a letter inviting other Valley legislators to join the I-81 caucus, co-chairs Gilbert and Cline said they “oppose the intrusion on private property rights and negative impacts to Shenandoah Valley farmland, historic sites and Main Street communities” as proposed in current plans for improvement of the I-81 corridor.
The Luray-based preservation group, Shenandoah Valley Network, issued a press release praising the new I-81 caucus and its mission.
According to Kate Wolford, director of the SVN, the caucus members as a group “have a great deal of influence” in proposing what she calls “viable, affordable alternatives to the massive widening” of I-81.
Denman Zirkle, executive director of the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation, is quoted in the press release commending Gilbert and Cline for “seeking a more affordable and less destructive plan for increasing the interstate’s capacity.”
Zirkle notes that plans for widening I-81 could cause “unnecessary destruction of Civil War battlefields and other historic resources throughout the corridor.”
The new caucus is scheduled to hold its first meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 6 in Richmond.