Commonwealth Chronicle

Online News Coverage of Central and Southwest Virginia

Posts Tagged ‘Star Solution

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

leave a comment »

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