Groups Seek Judgement in I-81 Suit
Shenandoah Valley Network
Valley Conservation Council
Coalition for Smarter Growth
Virginia Organizing Project
National Trust for Historic Preservation
For Immediate Release
October 24, 2008
Stewart Schwartz, Coalition for Smarter Growth, 703-599-6437
Andrea Ferster, Lead Counsel for Plaintiffs, 202-974-5142
Elizabeth Merritt, Deputy General Counsel, National Trust for Historic Preservation, 202-588-6035
Megan Gallagher, Shenandoah Valley Network, 540-253-5162
Coalition Seeks Court Order
Mandating Consideration of Better Options for I-81
A coalition of non-profit groups filed a motion for summary judgment in federal court in Charlottesville Wednesday, challenging a Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) plan to spend $11.4 billion to widen most of I-81 to an average of eight lanes.
The motion is part of a lawsuit filed in December 2007 to enforce laws requiring consideration of alternatives to a costly plan to overbuild the interstate. The groups asked Judge Norman K. Moon, of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, to order federal and state highway officials to preserve options for less costly and less destructive alternatives to major highway widening on I-81.
“It has become clear that the highway agencies do not intend to consider alternative solutions to major highway widening when individual projects are proposed for expanding I-81 in the future,” said Stewart Schwartz, Executive Director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, based in Washington, DC.
Schwartz added, “We have asked the court to require that VDOT fully evaluate alternatives like spot highway safety improvements and increased diversion of freight traffic from trucks to rail, which would have much less impact on the communities, farms, history and scenic character of the Shenandoah Valley and the entire I-81 corridor.”
Fundamental rights lie at the core of the coalition’s challenge to the I-81 plan. Washington Attorney Andrea C. Ferster, lead counsel for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, explained, “The statute of limitations notice published by the highway agencies in 2007 is an attempt to prevent landowners or local governments on the I-81 corridor from enforcing the primary federal law requiring that alternatives be considered when future highway widening is proposals on I-81. The result is a violation of their constitutional rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”
In addition to the due process claim, the groups are challenging the agencies’ failure to incorporate into I-81 project planning an independent study of multi-state freight rail, which is mandated and funded by the Virginia General Assembly. That study, now underway, also was called for by the Commonwealth Transportation Board in 2006. Rail freight improvements proposed for I-81 are projected to cost up to $4 billion for the entire six-state corridor, far less than the $11 billion highway widening proposed just for Virginia, which would require tolls on both cars and trucks on I-81.
The ten plaintiffs in the I-81 lawsuit include the Coalition for Smarter Growth, Shenandoah Valley Network, National Trust for Historic Preservation, Scenic Virginia, APVA Preservation Virginia, Virginia Organizing Project, Valley Conservation Council, Rockbridge Area Conservation Council, Sierra Club and landowner Larry Allamong, a Shenandoah County farmer whose property would be consumed by highway widening.
Megan Gallagher, director of the Shenandoah Valley Network, stated Wednesday, “Unless we succeed in our challenge, the Federal Highway Administration and VDOT will have a free rein to widen I-81 to eight or more lanes along its entire length, despite the objections of dozens of communities and thousands of people during the planning process.”
Elizabeth Merritt, Deputy General Counsel for the National Trust, said “We are committed to helping local communities preserve their historic character along the I-81 corridor. In fact, the National Trust is more than just a preservation advocate on the sidelines in this case – we’re a property owner too. I-81 cuts right through the heart of the Cedar Creek & Belle Grove National Historical Park, which includes Belle Grove Plantation, a National Trust Historic Site. Widening I-81 would have a devastating impact on Belle Grove and the National Historical Park, and many other Civil War battlefields in the Shenandoah Valley.” Ms. Merritt added. “We hope the lawsuit persuades the federal and state highway agencies to consider more sensible and affordable approaches to addressing traffic in the I-81 corridor.”