Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The STAR Solutions Spin on I-81

In an essay in the Times-Dispatch on Sunday, English Construction president Doug Dalton gives an all-is-well assessment of the status of the STAR Solutions $13 billion proposal to upgrade I-81. Despite not getting the $800 million it wanted in the recent federal transportation bill ($100 million was designed for I-81 for truck lanes), Dalton says the consortium's "creative, cost-effective solution to the worsening conditions on I-81" is still, um, on track.

He brushes aside many if not all of the major criticisms of the project. Moving freight through the corridor by expanding rail capacity isn't the answer, Dalton says, and it's too expensive. Tolls might be so high that some trucks would choose alternate routes, but "we are convinced the benefits of bringing long-awaited safety improvements to this increasingly dangerous highway will keep diversions to a minimum."

And despite not getting the millions it wanted from the feds - not to mention Virginia's budget problems - Dalton says the funding plan is on track. "..we're in an excellent position to get work underway to address the very real problems that exist on I-81."

Oh yeah - the public apparently loves the STAR proposal, according to an unspecified poll Dalton cites. He doesn't mention the opposition from local groups in the Shenandoah Valley, or the Virginia Manufacturing Association and the Virginia Manufacturers Association.

Dalton's column is an apparent attempt to limit the damage done by editorials like this one from the Bristol Herald Courier earlier this month.

"The road-building consortium wants to use I-81 as a guinea pig for the truck superhighway of the future – leveraging federal funds to test the idea of dedicated (but not physically separated) truck lanes on the nation’s interstates. Never mind that the Virginia Department of Transportation’s own study shows truck lanes are a poor fix for both congestion and safety concerns."


At 9:32 AM, Blogger Jim Wamsley said...

Two more I-81 views. These are from
Tuesday's Richmond
Times-Dispatch. Here are the columns, starting with the STAR piece.

STAR Solution:
I-81 Plan Considers Safety a Priority
Sunday, August 21, 2005

Lynchburg. An innovative proposal for upgrading Interstate 81 is
well on its way to becoming a reality. Congress recently
appropriated $142 million to the project, the largest single
allocation for any project in Virginia, and the Virginia Department
of Transportation (VDOT) is currently in negotiations with the STAR
Solutions team to establish the framework for making needed
improvements on this dangerous road. Bumper stickers saying "Pray
for me -- I drive 81" exist because of the obvious safety and
congestion problems. What parents have not feared for their child
who uses I-81 to come home from college for the holidays?

Despite the undisputed facts about the safety and congestion
problems on I-81, there remains a small, but vocal, minority that
has made claims that seek only to delay these needed improvements.

So how do we separate fact from fiction in the debate over I-81?

First, it's important to know what STAR Solutions is. Our
partnership, comprising some of Virginia's most respected
engineering and construction companies, came together to offer a
creative, cost-effective solution to the worsening conditions on I-

In 2002, STAR Solutions submitted a comprehensive proposal to VDOT
for widening the road and working toward separating truck and
passenger traffic. The improvements would be financed in part
through truck tolls. This approach reflects our conviction that
these improvements are the most effective ways to reduce accidents
given the highway's steadily increasing volume of traffic,
mountainous terrain, and out-of-date engineering. It would be a
pioneering and forward-thinking concept to address the growing
problem of freight congestion in the U.S. Designed and built almost
40 years ago, I-81 has more than double the number of trucks for
which it was designed, creating many dangerous and deadly situations.

STAR Solutions' proposal was selected in a fair, competitive
process. During the process, all plans were subjected to exacting
scrutiny at public hearings held by VDOT and the General Assembly.
In March, 2004, VDOT Commissioner Philip Shucet announced the STAR
Solutions proposal could move toward an agreement.

Impact Study Comes Next

And that's where we are today. Negotiations with VDOT continue to
move forward, as does a federally mandated environmental impact
study. This study will thoroughly examine environmental concerns,
assess construction alternatives, and determine the exact scope of
the project. Our goal remains an improvements plan that addresses
the current and future problems on I-81 in a way that also protects
the environment.

Virginians should be wary of any claims that new rail service will
solve I-81's congestion and safety problems. STAR Solutions remains
open to including rail as a way to reduce truck traffic. But to
suggest -- as some critics do -- that a rail line parallel to the
interstate will divert a significant amount of freight and passenger
traffic from I-81 is simply unrealistic. It ignores the true cost of
such a solution -- one that requires securing billions from an
unknown source to acquire new rights-of-way and new equipment. It is
predicated on the hope that other states in the I-81 corridor will
make similar rail improvements. And, it does nothing to address
growing safety concerns on the interstate itself. A rail-only
solution is simply no solution.

We must also be realistic about the potential effect of tolls. There
may be some truckers who, despite the obvious benefits of a wider
road and truck lanes, may choose alternate routes rather than pay a
toll. We are convinced the benefits of bringing long-awaited safety
improvements to this increasingly dangerous highway will keep
diversions to a minimum.

Submit an Alternate Plan?

If advocates of a rail solution or others opposed to the STAR
Solutions plan believe they have a better concept, then they should
follow us and submit their own proposal to VDOT under the Public-
Private Transportation Act.

Finally, much has been made of the fact that the $142 million
allocated to I-81 in the federal highway bill is less than was
sought earlier in the legislative process. Would we have liked the
funding to be more? Certainly. More money would have brought about
the needed safety and congestion improvements faster. But this
initial allocation signals that federal lawmakers recognize the
urgency of improving safety along this critical stretch of highway,
and that they are willing to forge a partnership with VDOT and the
private sector to achieve this goal. Coupled with the more than $160
million allocated by the Commonwealth, we're in an excellent
position to get work underway to address the very real problems that
exist on I-81.

We're proud to have brought an innovative and comprehensive solution
to the table -- one that has won the tentative support of VDOT and,
according to public opinion research, enjoys nearly 75 percent
public support. We're eager to begin work to get this urgently
needed project underway.
Doug Dalton is president of English Construction Company, a member
of the STAR Solutions team.

This story can be found at:


Freight Rail: Alternatives to Lane-Building Make Sense
Sunday, August 21, 2005

Emory. Those who regularly travel Virginia's I-81 often recount
close calls: fearful, virtual accidents with heavy trucks or other
automobiles. Those drivers and all Virginians may barely breeze
through another close call: a fiery environmental collision with
financial risks that could bankrupt transportation construction all
across Virginia.

A consortium of influential private interests attempting to seize
financial control of I-81, perhaps the Commonwealth's most valuable
public asset, faltered this month. Interstate 81 is a 325-mile
asphalt ribbon that wraps around and through some of Virginia's most
scenic and historic bounties -- the exquisite Shenandoah Valley and
the rugged mountain empire of Southwest Virginia. Surprisingly, when
President Bush signed a pork-barrel-engorged federal transportation
bill into law this month, its proposal to transform rural I-81 into
an 8-to-12-lane East Coast truck bypass fell short.

Yet, the threat remains.

Much of the Western and Southwest Virginia business community,
including trucking companies, manufacturers, and tourism businesses,
oppose the high tolls required to pay for the $13-billion project.
Current I-81 users would pay tolls for a lifetime. Millions more
trucks would have to ply the highway each year to make it pay. It's
hard to find any residents who support the STAR Solutions-Alaska
Congressman Don Young project once they understand it.

Young, a master power broker, strove mightily to write the
transportation bill to initiate a national system of truck-only
lanes. Young is chairman of the House Transportation and
Infrastructure Committee, and Young usually gets what he wants. He
wants to show off his truck toll-lane concept on I-81 in Virginia.

Privatizing a Public Good

Young's appropriation endorses a toll-based privatization of I-81 by
a contractors' consortium called STAR Solutions, without public
comment or consideration of cheaper and quicker congestion fixes
such as targeted highway and comprehensive freight rail
improvements. Young's strategy would privatize Western Virginia's
most valuable public asset, I-81, for 47 years and spell disaster
for the regional economy.

Behind STAR Solutions is the principal partner, Halliburton, through
its infamous subsidiary KBR, which is under investigation for
allegedly defrauding and over-billing the Pentagon while conducting
military-support operations in Iraq.

STAR partners include Randolph DeLay, brother of U.S. House Majority
Leader Tom DeLay, and the Richmond law firm McGuireWoods, which
helped write the Public-Private Transportation Act (PPTA) on which
the STAR proposal is based. These heavyweights are selling STAR as
contractors for I-81 improvements. McGuireWoods' advertising slogan
makes it plain: "Relationships that drive results." These
relationships are too cozy.

Virginians simply want an appropriate transportation future in the I-
81 corridor -- one that doesn't place communities, businesses,
families, and the environment at risk a safer future, with true
freight separation, rather than mammoth triple-trailer trucks,
speeding a mere rumble strip away from family cars. The Virginia
Department of Transportation (VDOT) projects half of heavy trucks
would travel in "general purpose" lanes with cars anyway.

Localities Support Options

Leaders in the I-81 corridor forged remarkable consensus. Forty-two
local Virginia governments and regional planning commissions voted
for resolutions supporting investigation of rail freight
alternatives to massive highway widening. VDOT could cooperate with
Norfolk Southern to create higher-speed rail freight service. This
option would dramatically upgrade the rail line, parallel to I-81,
into a "Steel Interstate."

VDOT reports one-third of all fatal accidents on I-81 occur in only
8 percent of I-81 lane miles. Complementing rail improvements by
fixing only problem areas such as adding truck climbing lanes and
improving interchanges can be done far more quickly and cheaply than
border-to-border widening.

The STAR project would not only put mountain and valley citizens and
businesses at significant economic risk and cause immense damage to
land, historic resources, and air quality, but would be so
financially precarious that it could cannibalize transportation
projects statewide.

Residents and local government and business leaders in Western and
Southwest Virginia rose up, voicing their disdain for the truck-lane
proposal to Senator John Warner. Warner sat on the Transportation
Conference Committee, tasked with ironing out differences between
the House and Senate transportation bills.

Congress ultimately authorized more than $100 million for "exclusive
truck-lanes" along I-81 in Virginia. That appropriation fell far
short of the $800 million STAR Solutions boasted its Capitol Hill
relationships could tease out of this federal transportation bill.

Now, the I-81 environmental impact study can strategize the best
solutions for the I-81 corridor without a $1.6-billion congressional
bribe, usable exclusively for truck-only lanes, like an elephant in
the closet, skewing the process. Virginia and the residents along I-
81 may regain control of the transportation planning process.

Virginia's gubernatorial candidates responded to the congressional
action. Democrat Tim Kaine said, "What we really ought to do is fix
the specific safety problems and be much more strategic about what
we do. It's more of a surgical solution than a global solution."
Republican Jerry Kilgore's campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh
said, "[Kilgore] would like to see some plan for I-81 that does not
encourage trucks to move off the interstate and onto secondary

It isn't public need but rather the relationship between STAR
Solutions and House Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young that
drove the STAR plan. In the last election cycle, STAR Solutions
employees donated more than $150,000 to Young's campaign, according
to federal election reports. Virginia STAR Solutions executives
donated $64,000 to Young's campaign -- a race run and won in Alaska.

VDOT could have kept the Fluor Corporation, the other bidder in the
PPTA process, in the bidding. Instead, VDOT is negotiating only with
STAR Solutions -- undercutting competition in what is far and away
the most expensive single transportation project ever contemplated
in Virginia.

Rail can provide safe, efficient, and cheaper means for this freight
that largely passes straight through Virginia. Rail improvements
enhance communities' economic-development fortunes without
endangering public health from increased diesel pollution.

STAR Solutions' plan to use Virginia for its own profit is wounded,
not dead. For Virginia's fiscal, economic, and environmental
integrity, we must secure a solution, not in the STARs but just a
stone's throw away -- on the rails.
Rees Shearer is chairman of RAIL Solution, an I-81 corridor
citizens' group supporting rail approaches to solving freight
congestion along I-81.

This story can be found at:

Visit RAILsolution on the web:


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