Lawmakers demand I-81 safety fix
August 11, 2009
By Drew Houff, The Winchester Star
Winchester — State Sen. Jill H. Vogel and her children narrowly avoided becoming another Interstate 81 statistic Friday as she drove here from Mount Sidney.
Vogel, R-Upperville, had to react quickly two times as trucks cut in front of her on the congested roadway.
“That day, I had the kids with me when traffic was merging in,” she said. “One time, the truck was merging in — it merged over and there was no place for me.”
Vogel said the volume of traffic on I-81, especially in the summer, is hazardous. “You have to be careful when it is a crowded feeling, like it was on Friday.”
Vogel has joined Rep. Frank R. Wolf, R-10th; Del. C. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock; and others in calling for efforts to improve conditions along the roadway.
“I think it’s imperative we do something,” she said. “All of the comments and concerns — from widening I-81, to tolls, and all of the other issues — go back to safety.
“Just like with the closing of the rest areas, that means we don’t have an option for a person to get off [the interstate] when they are tired,” Vogel said.
Wolf was especially critical of Gov. Timothy M. Kaine’s decision to close some of the rest areas because of economic woes, saying safety would be compromised.
Two recent fatalities along I-81 just south of Frederick County have raised the level of concern at the federal and state levels.
In a recent telephone interview, Wolf said the July 30 accident on I-81 that claimed the lives of Stone Taylor Weeks, 24, and William Holt Weeks, 20 — a tractor-trailer rammed their Honda from behind in Shenandoah County — should be enough to prompt action.
He also said something should be done before college students begin their return to campus in the coming weeks at James Madison University, Washington & Lee University, Bridgewater College, Roanoke College, Virginia Tech, Radford University, and Winchester’s own Shenandoah University — all near I-81.
State Secretary of Transportation Pierce Homer said in separate telephone interview that Virginia officials must decide to improve overall safety using the tools that are available — such as increasing the number of police officers on patrol.
Despite the concerns, the interstate remains one of the safest ways to travel.
The state Department of Transportation did not have any information specific to the 25-mile stretch of I-81 through Frederick County.
Drivers questioned Monday generally do not see I-81 as the safety hazard that some lawmakers have described it to be.
“I’ve lived in Clear Brook all my life, and when I want to go to a place, I want to use the highway that is fastest — and that’s the interstate,” said Candi Pocha. “An accident can happen on back roads, too. I’ve seen accidents right down from home.”
Tina Morano, who was driving through Frederick County Monday from her home in Binghamton, N.Y., said she always uses an interstate when taking a long trip.
“I’ve been driving for seven years, and I just feel more comfortable on the interstate,” she said. “I still would rather be on an interstate to go from one place to another than on some back road.”
But how safe drivers feel while driving on I-81 could depend on the size of their vehicle.
Of course, he is protected in the cab of his tractor-trailer. “Our semis win all of those battles against a Toyota or a Honda, so they had better be sure to understand that.”
Even if I-81 is generally safe, however, officials would like to make conditions better.
Gilbert, at the request of Carter, also has taken steps to designate I-81 in Shenandoah County as a Highway Safety Corridor.
The designation can be made after thorough analysis by the State Police, DMV, VDOT, and local officials and requires public hearings.
Once granted, the designation authorizes higher penalties for such offenses as speeding, tailgating, and reckless driving, including the doubling of fines.
Gilbert submitted a written request Aug. 3 to the commissioner of transportation, asking VDOT to take steps necessary for the designation.
— Contact Drew Houff at
PATH hearing begins
36 testify in first day of session
August 04, 2009
By Drew Houff, The Winchester Star
Winchester — For those who oppose plans for the Potomac-Appalachian Transmission Highline, the goal will be to prevent history from repeating itself.
More than 100 watched testimony Monday during the first day of hearings by the Virginia State Corporation Commission at Handley High School.
The hearings will continue at 10 a.m. today at Handley. Subsequent hearings are set for 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesday and 10 a.m. Thursday at Loudoun Valley High School in Purcellville.
The $1.8 billion 765-kilovolt transmission line will travel 276 miles from the Amos Substation in Putnam County, W.Va., to the proposed Kemptown Substation in Frederick County, Md.
It will enter Frederick County, Va., in Gainesboro, head east and pass through a small portion of Clarke County before re-entering West Virginia. It will then return to Virginia in Loudoun County, and then travel to the Kemptown Substation.
Those opposed to the project suggest the line is unnecessary and simply a profit-making endeavor for the two companies developing it — Greensburg, Pa.-based Allegheny Energy and Columbus, Ohio-based American Electric Power.
Some in the audience at Monday’s hearings may have felt the gathering was similar to hearings in August 2007 regarding the Trans-Allegheny Interstate Line (TrAIL), which is to be completed by June 2011 at a cost of $1.3 billion.
The testimony took place before SCC Hearing Examiner Alexander F. Skirpan Jr., who heard the remarks regarding TrAIL and eventually recommended its approval to the commissioners.
He heard more testimony Monday than he did in two days of local testimony for TrAIL — 29 people testified during the afternoon session, and another 17 during the evening session.
Rep. Frank R. Wolf, R-10th, began Monday’s testimony by thanking the SCC for making sure that one of its commissioners, Chairman Mark C. Christie, was also in attendance.
“As I have stated on numerous occasions, I believe that having a commissioner in attendance benefits the SCC’s decision-making process down the road,” Wolf testified. “The Supreme Court justices listen to the cases they preside over so they will have the full benefit of hearing what each side puts forward.”
He said Congress also sits at hearings to develop legislation and to ask questions.
Wolf noted that Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine had agreed that a commissioner needed to attend, asking that one attend each PATH hearing.
“Hopefully, there will be a commissioner at each of the hearings this week,” he said. “And maybe this will be a start of a precedent for commissioners to attend other hearings.”
Wolf said he was sorry the hearings were being held in August, when many people are away on vacation.
State Sen. Jill H. Vogel, R-Upperville, also testified, acknowledging that Frederick County is ground zero for transmission projects.
“Frankly, I am heartbroken that I am back before the State Corporation Commission to testify again on a transmission project,” she said. “With each new project, the citizens and property owners along the path face the devastating prospect of a permanent blight that negatively impacts their property values, destroys the viewshed, compromises the integrity of conservation easements in the area, and threatens some of the most culturally and historically significant property found anywhere in this country.”
A letter from Del. Beverly J. Sherwood, R-Frederick County, was read by Vogel to add to the record.
In her letter, Sherwood noted that her constituents were troubled that their property values were likely to decrease.
Several of the citizens speaking about the PATH project questioned how the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission had allowed Allegheny and AEP to be guaranteed 14.3 percent profits from the project.
Julia Moss of Frederick County said citizens were frightened by that guarantee.
Mike McIntyre, whose home along Northwestern Pike (U.S. 50) is near the West Virginia line, said his yard already has three power lines, and PATH would be a fourth that is even larger.
“How many power lines is a man supposed to have in his lifetime?” he asked.
David Didawick of Hunting Ridge Road in Frederick County said the proposal putting three power lines together on a tower was an invitation for terrorists.
Some also offered support for PATH, but most of them were Northern Virginia residents.
She said it would help an already congested power system, ensuring that she could still work and that other small businesses could prosper in Virginia.
Austin Kane of the National Wildlife Center countered that the increase of greenhouse gases alone would be reason for denial of the project.
Skirpan will take all of the testimony and formulate a recommendation to the full SCC.
— Contact Drew Houff at