Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell has announced that the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) will begin the next phase of environmental work on I-81 improvements between Roanoke and Christiansburg. Based on the 2003 agreement between VDOT and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the Tier 2 Environmental Study must be completed before a widening project along this stretch of I-81 can by designed and constructed. Transportation Secretary Sean T. Connaughton toured the region to discuss the widening concept with local media.
"This study is an important step forward toward widening one of the most congested and heavily traveled sections of I-81," said McDonnell. "Added capacity is needed on I-81 to provide a better and safer transportation facility for commerce and all travelers who depend on this vital transportation link every day."
The Tier 2 environmental study will cover the section of I-81 between exit 118 and exit 143 as identified as a section of independent utility in the previously completed Tier 1 Final Environmental Statement (FEIS) and Record of Decision (ROD) in 2007.
The widening concept that will advance into the Tier 2 environmental study is the addition of two general-purpose highway lanes on I-81 in each direction adjacent to the existing lanes to address future traffic demands.
"The Tier 1 study provided a broad inventory of potential impacts of expanding all of I-81 in Virginia, now we must take a more detailed look at this specific section," explained Connaughton. "VDOT will be conducting research, field work and extensive coordination with different state and federal agencies in addition to seeking public input on this phase of study, with the long-term goal of improving I-81."
The Tier 2 study is estimated to cost approximately $500,000 and expected to take about two years to complete. Funding for the study was identified in the July 1 update of VDOT's Six-Year Improvement Plan.
The Tier 2 study document will evaluate site-specific conditions and impacts before specific design and location decisions are made. In accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), in the fall of 2003, FHWA and VDOT launched an I-81 corridor improvement study. In November 2003, VDOT and FHWA announced that the agencies had agreed to streamline the corridor improvement study by dividing it into two phases, or tiers.
The Tier 1 study identified needs, developed solutions and evaluated potential impacts associated with conceptual-level improvements along the entire 325-mile I-81 corridor in Virginia. The Tier 1 study also divided I-81 into eight segments for further detailed analysis, which could be performed in Tier 2 studies. After completion of a Tier 2 study, FHWA may authorize use of federal funds for VDOT to begin designing construction plans for future improvements.
Although much discussion has centered on the possible expansion of I-81 in Virginia, no plans or proposals can be implemented without the approval and concurrence of FHWA. Because the interstate system is federally funded, any proposed changes to the highway must comply with all federal laws, including NEPA.