Commonwealth Chronicle

Online News Coverage of Central and Southwest Virginia

I-81’s uncertain future: A wider roadway or a steel interstate? (Part One)

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This story was originally published here.

Darrell Lewis is a self-professed man of faith, but he doesn’t believe in salvation when it comes to traffic congestion on Interstate 81. Lewis, a Luray, Va. resident, has been a truck driver for 21 years, but hauling freight has never seemed more of a struggle than now.

Darrell Lewis - Truck driver, owner-operator

Darrell Lewis - Truck driver, owner-operator

“It ain’t no fun anymore, you know?,” Lewis said. “I mean, it is. I do it because I like trucking, but it’s different than what it used to be.”

To him, driving on I-81 is a nightmare. His load, usually hazardous materials such as paint and chlorine, exacerbates the risk and stress that bear down on Lewis every time he gets behind the wheel.

He used to haul gasoline, but he switched to hauling chemicals after spilling 5,000 gallons of gas in a crash on Interstate 66 a few years back. Lewis said he became a devout Christian after he managed to escape his wrecked truck cab in one piece.

Now, his biggest fear is a dangerous combination of aggressive drivers, speeding and the clogged interstate.

Lewis has heard of the proposed solutions to relieve the congestion on I-81, but he remains skeptical that any of these costly projects, such as the expansion of the interstate or a rail corridor to carry truck traffic, can solve anything.

“There is no solution,” Lewis said. “To me it ain’t.”

He doesn’t have much to say about advocacy group RAIL Solution’s proposal to move freight to rail. While it might work for some long-haul transports, Lewis doesn’t think it would ever be implemented for hauling perishable goods. He believes the quality of those products can be compromised, because trains take too long to deliver them.

As for widening the interstate and adding a lane or two in each direction, Lewis can see pros and cons.

“We all know that if we widen the highway and things like that, that would probably help. But it would take 20 years to do that… and by then you’d probably need five lanes instead of four,” he said.

Searching for solutions

Lewis is not alone in seeing congestion as the biggest problem on I-81. State transportation officials, advocacy groups and both truck and car drivers recognize the need for improvement of traffic flow on the freeway.

Adding lanes to I-81 or moving more freight to rail to reduce commercial traffic are the proposals most commonly touted and reviewed by the Virginia Department of Transportation. Costs for these big proposals run in the billions, and VDOT is already strapped for cash, struggling with a $2.6 billion deficit.

But the availability of economic stimulus money for infrastructure projects, the upcoming federal transportation act reauthorization, and the new administration in Washington create a window of opportunity for the funding of I-81 development projects.

VDOT says most of the projects it has submitted for I-81 involve requests for stimulus money to pave the road and improve bridges. But RAIL Solution is hoping for its own slice of the stimulus package, to fund its proposal for a high-speed railway parallel to I-81.

How we got here

Most of I-81 was built between the late 1950s and the early 1970s as a four-lane freeway meant to relieve traffic congestion on other state roads. But since I-81 was opened, employment in all industry sectors in the corridor expanded, according to VDOT. Services employment nearly tripled and retail employment along the corridor doubled.

The economic growth led to a sharp increase in the volume of traffic on I-81, particularly truck traffic. The number of vehicles transiting Rockbridge County nearly doubled from 1985 to 1995. What was a state-of-the-art expressway in the 1960s suddenly became clogged and perilous. Now the Virginia corridor of I-81 has almost reached its capacity, with an average of 20,000 trucks traveling on the road every day.

Planners say a four-lane highway such as I-81 is at capacity when it’s handling 4,800 passenger vehicles per hour in each direction in rural areas and 4,600 in urban areas. But those figures don’t take into account the impact of big rig traffic, which accounts for 40 percent of the volume on some stretches of I-81.

According to a 2007 VDOT study, a daily average of 24,000 vehicles, including tractor-trailers, goes through the stretch between the Roanoke and Montgomery county lines in each direction, or 48,000 total. Trucks account for about 25 percent of daily traffic in that area.

At peak times, more than 3,050 vehicles per hour, including big trucks, pass in each direction, pushing the capacity limits.

Alan Caviness, safety director of the Virginia-based trucking company Houff Transfer, blames the congestion on planning when the interstate was first designed.

“I don’t think anyone had a clue how much truck traffic there would be on 81,” he said.

Debates on improving I-81 have been going on for at least a decade. But everyone agrees that, with traffic expected to double in 20 years, something needs to be done to improve the flow along the Virginia corridor.

According to data provided by the Virginia Transportation Research Council, between 1985 and 2005 traffic in the United States went up 80 percent. For that same interval, however, the number of lane miles has increased by a mere 5 percent. Adding a lane or two in each direction seems a basic solution, but one that comes with an expiration date and a big price tag.  Eeventually, traffic will increase to fill the additional lanes, so road widening is only a temporary solution.

A corridor study conducted by VDOT shows that adding one lane in each direction for all 325 miles of I-81 in Virginia and increasing shoulder widths would cost about $5.1 billion in 2005 dollars and $7.5 billion in 2015 dollars. Adding two lanes would cost $11.4 billion in 2015 dollars.

“We’re not going to build our way out of congestion,” said Mike Fontaine, senior research scientist at the state research council.  “I mean, we’ve tried to build our way out of congestion for 40 years and it hasn’t really been successful.”

But to truck drivers and transportation authorities alike, there is little doubt that expansion is needed in particularly busy hubs such as the Roanoke and Winchester areas. Truck driver Clyde Huffman has been hauling heavy loads up and down the Virginia corridor of I-81 since 1976. To him, the volume of traffic is the biggest problem on the interstate right now.

“[Traffic]’s picked up. It’s gotten to the point where it needs three lanes in both directions,” Huffman said. (to be continued)

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Written by beckybratu

August 24, 2009 at 12:47 pm

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