I-81 Lawsuit

By: Kelly Creswell Email
By: Kelly Creswell Email

The plan to widen the entire stretch of Interstate 81 through Virginia, and to add some toll stations, has hit some legal troubles. Several conservation groups have filed a lawsuit against the Federal Highway Administration to block the plan.

The conservation groups say VDOT is violating the National Environmental Policy Act. And they say VDOT has not fully studied the impacts of widening Interstate 81.

The Shenandoah Valley Network and several other conservation organizations filed a lawsuit on the last day possible for legal action.

"The lawsuit was our very last option. It's not something we wanted to do at all but with comment periods ending, with the process rolling on, without seeing significant changes to the proposal, which still includes major widening and tolls," said Kim Sandum, executive director for the Community Alliance for Preservation, which is part of the S.V.N.

The organizations want VDOT to do studies that would look at the environmental impacts of the project, such as moving freight to rail, spot improvements, truck climbing lanes, and preservation of historic battlefields.

But VDOT spokesperson Laura Southard says the plans for expansion are just in the beginning stages and more research will be done before work begins.

"There are no funds that have been identified to do any widening projects, and if we were to proceed with widening projects first, we've go to do more detailed environmental studies on those possible locations," says Southard. "A lot of questions still have to be answered about Interstate 81 and we're going to follow all federal and state processes in answering those questions."

However, members of S.V.N. claim that VDOT is narrowing down its options for possible projects, and then looking at the environmental impacts.

"It seems to be, you should do it the other way around. You should look at the impacts as well as the traffic needs, and try to come up with something that addresses both of those, not look at one only, and then by the way, what happened to the other," says Sandum.

VDOT officials say they are working on safety improvements and they are only following plans directed by the Commonwealth Transportation Board. Members of the S.V.N. hope the lawsuit will convince the board to re-examine whether widening the interstate is appropriate.

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