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

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Robin Chapman, a spokesman for Norfolk Southern, calls the RAIL Solution visionary and ambitious. But he says Norfolk Southern is looking into more practical and achievable short- and mid-term goals, such as the improvement of a freight corridor running from New Jersey to New Orleans. If, however, RAIL Solution were given federal funding to implement its project, Norfolk Southern might consider a partnership.

Train tracks run through the backyard of Modine Manufacturing Co. in Buena Vista. Erin Wilson, who is in charge of distribution, says it would take a lot of money to bring the rail up to date for the company to use. (BECKY BRATU/The Rockbridge Report)

Train tracks run through the backyard of Modine Manufacturing Co. in Buena Vista. Erin Wilson, who is in charge of distribution, says it would take a lot of money to bring the rail up to date for the company to use. (BECKY BRATU/The Rockbridge Report)

According to a study from the state rail department, a single intermodal train, which carries freight in a container or vehicle, can take about 280 trucks off the road. A carload train, a permanent railroad fixture that can be loaded with freight, can take 500 trucks off the road.

The same study shows that, in 2001, the railroads transported 189 million tons of freight to, from, through and within Virginia. At 15 tons a truckload, it would take 12.6 million annual truck trips — or about 40,000 a day — to move that much freight. And, according to RAIL Solution, trucks use about 11 times more fuel than trains.

But the fact that automobiles and trucks are so embedded in American culture makes a paradigm shift all the more difficult, Shearer said. He also believes that the opposition to RAIL Solution is entrenched in the belief that freight can be transported effectively only in trucks running over the road.

“We’re building a transportation revolution from the ground up because the transportation power structure that exists is so ossified and so committed to a mode which is outmoded at this point,” Shearer said. “We’re the tail trying to wag a dog here, and that can be pretty tricky.”

Criticism of the proposed RAIL Solution has come from multiple sectors. A spokesman for the American Trucking Associations said the project was not about taking trucks off the interstate, but about getting tax breaks for privately-owned railroad companies such as Norfolk Southern.

However, Del. Ben Cline of Lexington, a RAIL Solution supporter, says his attempts in the past to introduce tax breaks for rail companies to invest in more intermodal facilities have failed to stimulate growth in this segment.

“That didn’t fly,” Cline said. “It wasn’t enough of an incentive.”

Truck drivers don’t see much of a future in moving freight to rail, either. Shannon Kilgore drives for a company that operates a rail division. He claims that the program helps with some of the longer drives, but that it doesn’t do anything to improve congestion on the interstate.

“It doesn’t really keep us off the road that much because it’s just the long stretches in between, like, say, going from the East Coast to the West Coast being on the rail,” Kilgore said.

Owner operator Robin Steely says he wishes more freight went to rail, but he doesn’t think the infrastructure can handle it.

“You put something on the railroad, sometimes it takes a week to get there,” he said. “With a truck you can have it there the next day.”

But Shearer said RAIL Solution envisions a high-speed infrastructure that would also be implemented for just-in-time services. Trains would be able to run faster than trucks over the hilly terrain of the Virginia corridor of I-81, and truckers’ productivity could improve. Drivers could plan to arrive at a scheduled time and they’d be able to rest on the train — ready to make the final leg of the trip once the train reaches its destination.

“We’re not talking about eliminating any trucking jobs as far as I can see,” Executive Director of RAIL Solution David Foster said. “We’re just saying that instead of the trucker having to drive all the way, the trucker can ride on the train part of the time.”

Some manufacturers along Interstate 81 are reluctant to embrace this alternative for the distribution of their products. Headquartered in Wisconsin, Modine Manufacturing Co. builds some of its heating equipment in Buena Vista. The manufacturer employs several trucking companies that have terminals on or around I-81.

Even though a railroad track runs right through Modine’s backyard, Materials Management Coordinator Erin Wilson said it would take some serious investment to bring the facility up to date.

“It will be hard to sort of reconnect that because we haven’t used it in so many years, but it would be possible to use it for certain shipments,” Wilson said. “For others it would be really difficult because it would take a lot longer to get there.”

Big trucking companies, however, appear interested in transferring their long-haul freight to rail. Chapman said that companies such as J.B. Hunt and other major trucking companies are practically begging the railway corporation to take more of their truck traffic off their hands.
Norfolk Southern is looking into expanding its rail capacity so it can handle more intermodal traffic. The railway company takes 5,000 trucks off the road every day in Pennsylvania, but its infrastructure capacity in Virginia is not at that level yet.

Shearer is more confident than ever that RAIL Solution will be taken into consideration in Congress. Rep. Rick Boucher of the Ninth District of Virginia is proposing a project for the Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act that would provide for a study of the steel interstate. The study would be the beginning of an engineering analysis to obtain a solid estimate of costs for building the infrastructure Shearer is considering.

The availability of economic stimulus money for infrastructure projects, the upcoming federal transportation act reauthorization, and the new administration in Washington offer a unique opportunity for RAIL Solution to sway national transportation policy away from its dependence on highways. Shearer’s hopes now reside entirely with Boucher’s initiative and the latter’s negotiations with Gov. Tim Kaine.

“I am optimistic,” Shearer laughs. “What else am I gonna be? I was one person against Halliburton. You gotta be an optimist to do that.”

Written by beckybratu

August 24, 2009 at 8:28 pm

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

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Huffman believes the need is particularly acute on steep inclines, where the heavy trucks have to slow down significantly, causing traffic to back up.

Truck driver Thomas Venable agrees. When he carries a full load of milk uphill on I-81, Venable often has to keep his flashers on because his truck cannot go faster than 55 mph. A third lane, truckers believe, would help ease the congestion, particularly in hilly regions such as I-81 trouble spot Fancy Hill in Rockbridge County.

A truck climbing lane meant to improve the merging of trucks on an uphill grade has already been built near Christiansburg. Another is being built in Rockbridge County in the Fairfield area. That location has one of the longest and steepest uphill grades on I-81.

VDOT projects are financed through the Six-Year Improvement Program. The program assigns money for transportation projects proposed for construction, development or study in the next six budget years. The program is updated annually.

The Commonwealth Transportation Board, a 17-member body appointed by the governor, allocates the highway funding to VDOT for specific projects. VDOT’s normal revenue stream is made up mainly of sales taxes or taxes on fuel. Federal money is not a steady source for the state transportation department.

The recent economic downturn dealt a blow to VDOT’s revenue stream, leaving the future of big-scale expansion plans up in the air, contingent upon detailed environmental studies and budget concerns.

The future of I-81

It has been more than a year since VDOT rejected a proposal for the expansion of I-81 launched in 2002 by the Star Solutions consortium, led by a Halliburton subsidiary. That plan stipulated the addition of four truck-only lanes and some general-use lanes at a cost of up to $13 billion. Star’s project also called for truckers to pay tolls in their special lanes.

An early STAR Solutions visualization of truck-only lanes. Later mock-ups showed continuous four-lane roadways with buffered rumble strip separation of truck from car lanes. (Photo: PETER SAMUEL/TOLLROADSnews)

An early STAR Solutions visualization of truck-only lanes. Later mock-ups showed continuous four-lane roadways with buffered rumble strip separation of truck from car lanes. (Photo: PETER SAMUEL/TOLLROADSnews)

But VDOT decided that, although the idea was creative, when measured against expected future traffic volumes building separate truck-only lanes would provide too many lanes for trucks and not enough for cars in most locations.

Studies conducted for the department show that by 2035 nontruck traffic in many urban areas will exceed the capacity of the existing I-81.

Fred Altizer, VDOT’s Interstate 81 program coordinator, believes that the addition, where needed, of no more than one or two general-purpose lanes in each direction is the better solution.
“Even if you took 100 percent of the trucks off of 81, it’s going to have to be widened,” Altizer said.

But expansion cannot unclog the Virginia corridor all on its own, and other improvements – both short- and long-term – are being analyzed by VDOT.

“There’s no silver bullet to fixing congestion,” the research council’s Fontaine said. “It’s really a whole suite of solutions that people have to look at.”

Those solutions include long-term plans that look at a combination of rail and truck transportation. To identify short-term rail improvements and analyze potential long-term diversion of truck traffic to rail, VDOT worked closely with the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation and privately-owned Norfolk Southern Railway, which owns about 60 percent of the state’s track.

While improvements to tracks connecting Manassas to Front Royal are already underway, so far money hasn’t been budgeted for VDOT to engage in any other intermodal projects. Altizer said that rail projects should be regarded as complements to freeway improvements, since moving freight to rail won’t solve congestion on its own.

“It’s going to take capacity in our highways. It’s going to take capacity in our railways,” Altizer said. “I think both of those are essential.”

One advocacy group, however, argues that it has a plan to end all traffic problems on I-81. RAIL Solution, spearheaded by Emory, Va. resident Rees Shearer, is advancing its proposal for a pilot program parallel with the interstate system, but on the railroad: a steel interstate.

“This would be one of those few silver bullets out there that could make a difference in terms of not only improving quality of life and air quality and so forth, but actually improving productivity at a cheaper price than it would be to expand the highway,” Shearer said.

The plan was first put forward as a reaction to the Star consortium proposal, which threatened the beauty and equilibrium of the Valley and the health of its inhabitants, Shearer said. RAIL Solution estimates the cost of its five-state, 600-mile project at around $9 billion.

That’s $4 billion cheaper than Star’s Virginia-only widening proposal. The envisioned steel interstate would be dual tracked, free from grade crossings, equipped with computerized signaling, and would move freight much faster than the existing infrastructure. The steel interstate would essentially follow the roadway of I-81.

“Those who oppose this seem to be stuck in the idea of rail service as it currently is. Well, that’s our grandparents’ railroad,” Shearer said. “The infrastructure in the Shenandoah Valley was put in place in the 1870s. So, of course it doesn’t compete with a 1960s-era highway.”

Emory, the place Shearer has been calling home for more than 40 years, is a sleepy village that nestles between the deep-green Appalachians. If it weren’t for its location, half a mile off I-81, and the railroad first built in 1856, Emory would probably not even make it onto most maps.

RAIL Solution emerged primarily out of Shearer’s horror at Star’s proposal in 2002 for an eight-lane project tearing through the idyllic Virginia countryside. Back in those days Shearer still worked as a counselor in an elementary school, where he saw many children whose asthma was aggravated by the area’s poor air quality. He fears widening the interstate would bring in more traffic and subsequently more air pollution.

“It was the public health issue that hit me hardest,” Shearer said.

According to RAIL Solution, adding freight-carrying capacity on rail requires a much smaller footprint on the land than interstate construction. The steel interstate could be built mostly on existing tracks, and some grading and bridge structures are already in place. The need for land to expand the existing railway is also modest compared to adding more lanes to the interstate, Shearer believes.

The initial ragtag effort put in by a handful of committed early believers has since garnered the support of about 1,300 people in 37 cities, counties, organizations and localities, including Lexington, Buena Vista and Rockbridge County. Supporters include citizens from localities along I-81, volunteers for a number of transportation and environmental advocacy groups, and local governments.

A suggested partnership with Norfolk Southern is uncertain, but Shearer believes that the railroad company would be more interested in collaboration if federal money for the project became available. (to be continued)

Written by beckybratu

August 24, 2009 at 8:21 pm

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)

Written by beckybratu

August 24, 2009 at 12:47 pm