In June 2007, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) approved a Tier 1 Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for widening Interstate 81 through the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, despite significant objections from the National Trust and other preservation organizations. Significantly, FHWA invoked a new optional short statute of limitations for the Tier 1 decision, which allows only 180 days from the decision to file suit – a provision added in the SAFETEA-LU transportation reauthorization legislation passed in 2005. Following an unsuccessful attempt to persuade FHWA to withdraw its shortened statute of limitations for the Tier 1 decision, the Trust opted to join a lawsuit, which was filed by the Coalition for Smarter Growth, Shenandoah Valley Network, Scenic Virginia, Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club, and others in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia in December 2007.
The preferred alternative in the Tier 1 EIS would widen 61 percent of the 325-mile corridor by four additional lanes and 37 percent by two additional lanes. The entire widening project is estimated to cost $11 billion, which would be paid by tolls on cars and trucks. Unfortunately, the FHWA did not include freight rail alternatives that might remove trucks from the highway and reduce the need for the potentially damaging expansion of I-81.
The impacts of a major widening of I-81 would be devastating, as the corridor includes 9 to 10 Civil War battlefields, and 1,238 acres of battlefield core area within the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields National Historic District. Seven other battlefields, already greatly impacted by I-81, would suffer much greater impacts, most notably at Cedar Creek. In addition, two other battlefields, Port Republic & Cross Keys, could be bisected by the proposed I-81 bypass around Harrisonburg. The I-81 project would directly destroy up to 436 acres of the Cedar Creek & Belle Grove National Historical Park, which would represent more than 12 percent of the National Park’s acreage. The 1753 Fort Bowman/Harmony Hall, which is owned by Belle Grove, Inc. and is part of the National Park, could lose up to 34 acres, more than a quarter of this 126-acre property, as well as the historic stone house, which stands only 500 feet from the existing highway.
The I-81 widening proposal also threatens the “String of Pearls” – the historic “Main Street” towns along Route 11 from Winchester to Abingdon, at least 30 of which have historic districts that are formally listed on the National Register. The String of Pearls towns have an enormous economic investment in heritage tourism, which is dependent on protecting the traditional rural character of the Shenandoah Valley. Any significant widening of I-81, which closely parallels Route 11, would damage the historic character of these communities by inducing a surge of commercial, industrial, and residential development at interchanges and along parallel and connecting roadways.
The lawsuit raises claims under National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), challenging FHWA’s rejection of rail alternatives, which could substantially reduce truck traffic and thus the need for additional lanes. Among other things, the Virginia legislature has specifically directed the Virginia Department of Transportation to study freight rail alternatives for I-81, and that study has not yet been done, so the lawsuit contends that rejecting rail alternatives is premature. In addition, the lawsuit includes a constitutional due process claim, because the public does not have adequate notice of which alternatives may be foreclosed as a result of the accelerated statute of limitations for challenging the Tier 1 EIS.
The Trust’s involvement in the I-81 litigation is focused on ensuring that FHWA fully meets its legal obligations to evaluate all information about alternatives that would avoid and minimize harm to significant historic resources.
A copy if the complaint is available here.