Private partner withdraws from I-81 project in Virginia

| 1/25/2008

The construction and engineering firm KBR has pulled out of a proposed $13-billion proposal for Interstate 81 in Virginia, sending talks of a large-scale widening project to the back burner.

Officials from the firm, formerly known as Kellogg, Brown & Root, wrote to the Virginia Department of Transportation in December, 2007, to say the company had made a business decision to back out of a proposal it first pitched to the state DOT in 2003.

VDOT Spokesman Jeff Caldwell told Land Line that the state still intends to proceed with a number of smaller, localized improvement projects along I-81, but there are no immediate plans to replace KBR or the consortium known as Star Solutions to proceed with a large-scale proposal.

“There was never a designed project or a final agreed-upon plan,” Caldwell said.

Star Solutions, with KBR as its principal investor, submitted a widening proposal that would have included tolled truck-only lanes on most of a 300-mile stretch from Bristol to Winchester, VA.

The Virginia General Assembly approved the Public-Private Transportation Act in 1995 to attract investors. As part of the push for increased private involvement in transportation, VDOT applied for and was granted conditional tolling authority in 2003 from the Federal Highway Administration for I-81 as part of the Interstate System Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program.

The rehabilitation program is one of six pilot programs FHWA currently has to allow states to toll interstates. Pennsylvania Turnpike officials have applied under the same program to toll Interstate 80, but FHWA has not yet granted them authority.

Caldwell said Virginia’s conditional authority from FHWA will not be affected by KBR’s pullout.

Instead of something large-scale, Caldwell said VDOT will go to work on approximately 80 smaller improvements using a variety of financing methods.

“There was $730 million in work in our six-year improvement program, which is how we organize and fund projects here in Virginia,” Caldwell said.

The list of projects includes truck-climbing lanes in areas of steep incline, specifically between northbound Mile Marker 195 and Mile Marker 202 in Rockbridge County and between southbound Mile Marker 128 and Mile Marker 119 in Montgomery County.

“We’re going to move ahead with those using other procurement methods, soliciting contractors and doing design-build projects, and we’ll just stop for now the negotiations on the Public-Private Transportation Act solutions for I-81 or for significant portions of I-81,” Caldwell said.

Virginia’s 325-mile portion of I-81, which runs from Tennessee to New York, includes 90 interchanges.

The scenic route in mountains and valleys includes access and close proximity to Civil War battlefields.

VDOT officials describe I-81 as one of the top eight trucking corridors in the U.S., with truck traffic making up 20 percent to 40 percent of the estimated 60,000 vehicles traveling the roadway each day.

– By David Tanner, staff writer