VDOT issues death notice on I-81 truck toll lanes concession proposal
By Peter Samuel
Virginia DOT has announced an end to the botched procurement of a toll concession to fund improvements to I-81. Since October 2006 it has been clear that the project was going nowhere. Today VDOT used a letter from Kellogg Brown and Root, a lead company in the STAR Solutions consortium, as justification for issuing the official death notice.
VDOT Commissioner David Ekern said in a statement today: "...I have directed VDOT to terminate all activities related to the PPTA (Public Private Transportation Act) procurement of improvements along the I-81 corridor."
Proposals for toll concessions were made in 2002 and competed in 2003. In February 2004 VDOT chose STAR Solutions proposal of 8 lanes minimum over a 6 lanes solution from Fluor. The STAR proposal had trucks segregated from cars in two inner lanes each direction, cars having two outer 2 lane roadways each direction.
Fluor's proposal was much more economical - 3rd laning inwards for the entire 520km (323 miles) plus truck climbing lanes. It was an Ohio Turnpike type format with trucks banned from the inner lane in each direction, and mixed traffic in the other two lanes.
STAR Solutions initially at least proposed that only the truck lanes would be tolled, cars going free. Fluor tolled all vehicles but only at lower volume rural points, allowing a lot of free travel for shorter distance travel.
VDOT's selection panel chose STAR Solutions by a large margin. It was the more popular of the two among the communities along the interstate. People, at least car driving people, liked the truck lanes.
Its fatal flaw was it did little for truckers. They were going to be forced to use the toll lane and there was no provision to allow them to run longer and heavier loads to generate the higher productivity needed to pay tolls.
Trucker lobbies were fiercely opposed to a project that used coercion to get them into the toll lanes, and understandably so.
They talked diversion onto local roads, generating opposition in communities along the parallel free routes. They defeated the plan politically.
At the same time a more detailed study by VDOT showed 8 lanes wasn't needed for considerable portions of the road. The project was effectively shelved in October 2006 when VDOT announced it was focusing on modest improvements to truck climbing lanes using design-build contracts and regular tax/grant funding rather than tolls.
The project wasn't going to generate any revenues with tolls shelved.
STAR Solutions stayed in hoping to pick up some negotiated design and construction contracts from VDOT rather than having to bid competitively - a sort of consolation prize. VDOT was reluctant to be seen to be canceling a procurement so they formally kept it in the "active" category.
As it turned out no design-build contracts were ever negotiated.
COMMENT: VA/I-81 was a botched PPP procurement - botched by STAR Solutions in proposing a truck lanes proposal that truckers hated and fought ferociously, and botched by VDOT in choosing a popular proposal over a viable one. They should have gone with Fluor.
Truck lanes should never be a matter of coercing truckers. Truckers need to be attracted to use them by giving them improvements in operations worth the tolls.
Also the truck toll lanes on I-81 would have been far more viable if they been an interstate project. The heaviest truck traffic on I-81 is in Pennsylvania between I-78 and I-70 and truck volumes fall off progressively going south through short stretches in Maryland and West Virginia before entering Virginia.