Commonwealth Chronicle

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Posts Tagged ‘trucks

Going inside the truck cab (Part Three)

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Steely said he used to be able to spend more time at home, but the sour economy has forced him to take to the road for longer periods. He used to spend a week on the road before returning to Nashville for a weekend’s rest. Now he’s driving for two to three weeks at a time just to make a profit.


On the road, truckers do their best to create a home on wheels for themselves.

It will be a month before he sees his son again.

“I’ve missed ballgames and his life in general,” he said.

Like Steely, Pendleton has a 13-year-old son who stays at home in Tennessee, cared for by his grandmother.

But because Pendleton’s company doesn’t allow its drivers to travel with minors, she gets to see her son Dustin only when she goes home, once every two weeks. She says it’s difficult to be away from him, but they try to talk on the phone every day.

And, thanks to her trucking job, the little family that used to struggle to get by every day can now afford whitewater rafting and camping trips. But Pendleton knows she would never advise Dustin to go into trucking.

“I would tell him I would rather him go get a good education and something stable and not as lonely,” she said. “The hardest part about this is that it is so lonely.”

Steely agrees. He wants his son to go to college and get the education he never had. But his son, not put off by a long-distance dad, wants to follow in his father’s occupational footsteps.

Like Steely, Wayne Black became a trucker out of sheer love for the open road. But unlike the Nashville trucker, Black, originally a New Yorker, doesn’t find the long-haul life all that lonely. An independent man, Black goes home, but not to see family. Instead, he trades in his 18 wheels for two and hits the road on his motorcycle.

The biker tattoos covering his arms are misleading, because Black, a blood donor and pen pal to third-graders, is anything but a tough guy. He cherishes the freedom of traveling cross country, but chastises truckers who disrespect the industry. The risky road practices of those drivers — illegal parking, speeding and inattention — give trucking a bad rap, he said.

“They don’t realize they’re taking someone’s life in their hands by running down the road four feet off a little car or even another truck,” said Black.

For Pendleton, the loneliness of life on the road makes her see little future in trucking. Her heart is always homeward bound, looking forward to being with her son and her boyfriend, who recently proposed to her. Pendleton proudly flashes her diamond ring, a prized family heirloom.

She insists it’s not an engagement ring, but a confirmation of their strong commitment and devotion to each other. She tries to contain her excitement, because she’s been married before. Dustin’s father divorced her after a 13-year marriage, and she was barely getting by when she met the truck driver who would become her boyfriend. But Pendleton doesn’t only miss spending time with her son and boyfriend at their home in Tennessee.

“I miss my son, and I miss being home, but the thing that I miss the most is being able to jump in that shower anytime you want to,” she said.

Although Pendleton says she’s not a girly girl, she says she still wants to feel like a woman while on the road, which has so far proven to be difficult.

“I had my nails for a while done because I wanted to be a little feminine out here being a truck driver, but you can’t really stop and park at a nail salon to get your nails done in that big truck,” she said.

Darrell Lewis, an owner-operator who is a devout Christian first, doesn’t let small parking lots keep him away from Sunday sermons. For Lewis, his truck cab has been his home-on-the-road and Bible-study-on-wheels for the past 21 years.

Lewis specializes in hauling hazardous materials such as chlorine and paint, a dangerous job for sure, but a far cry from the days when he transported gasoline.

An accident that spilled 5,000 gallons of gasoline and ruptured his inner ear forced him into six months of rehabilitation. He tried to go back to his old job hauling loads of gas, but anxiety attacks finally got the better of him. He switched to the lesser danger of transporting chemicals.

Not risk-free, but then long-haul trucking never is, no matter the load.

“Trucking is trucking, you know what I’m saying? We all have to be safe, it doesn’t matter what we’re hauling,” Lewis said.

“We can all die whether we’re doing cotton candy or chemicals.”

Photo credit: / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Going inside the truck cab (Part Two)

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Tammy Pendleton might not have 19 years of trucking under her belt, but she’s still gone far. She can remember exactly what she was wearing when she was last in California. It was January and she was standing in a strawberry patch, in shorts and taking in the incredible sight of the snowy mountain tops on the horizon.

Tammy Pendleton keeps a photo of her son and her fiancé on the dashboard of her big rig. (BECKY BRATU/The Rockbridge Report)

Tammy Pendleton keeps a photo of her son and her fiancé on the dashboard of her big rig. (BECKY BRATU/The Rockbridge Report)

It has been almost two years since Pendleton traded her housewife apron for an air-ride-equipped 18-wheeler that she’s since driven through at least 40 states.

“If you don’t mind being alone, it’s good,” Pendleton said. “I come across around the corner up in New York and saw Lake Eerie and the blue sky, and the blue lake, and then snow out on the ice. It was just the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

But life on the road is tough for truck drivers, and even more so for a woman driver. Pendleton says she feels she needs to watch her back more because she’s a woman. Her sparkling eyes have gotten her into tight situations a few times already, once while she was delivering a load to a customer.

“This guy says to me, he says, ‘You have the prettiest blue eyes.’ And I said ‘Thank you,’ and he said, ‘You know, those would look really good in a jar on a shelf somewhere.’

“I’m not joking,” she said, shaking her head.

Pendleton thinks women truckers face resentment from their condescending male counterparts, but she said that the situation has gotten better as more women have entered the industry.

Pendleton’s trucker boyfriend taught her how to drive a truck and helped her get a license. She’s grateful for the lessons because she doesn’t think getting a commercial driver’s license was as hard as it should be. Pendleton said she went to trucking school for three weeks and got only an hour of driving time.

“They’re just pushing people through,” she said.

Other professional truckers agree that obtaining a truck license is not difficult.

“It’s a six-week process,” said Chism. “But I mean you can find anybody that, you know, owns a truck that is willing to spend a couple weeks with you to show you how to shift the gears, blah, blah, blah, and, you know. You can take it from there.”

Male or female, truckers say the lessons and special license required of truckers don’t prepare them for the reality of life on the road.

Pendleton has learned through trial and error where it’s safe to stop and where she’s likely to encounter “spooky characters.” She starts her day before sunrise and tries to be in her truck and ready for bed before dark because she doesn’t want any trouble. She learned not to open her truck door at night after being solicited by a surprised female prostitute who quickly halved her price.

Other truckers have learned to tune out those nighttime knocks. But it’s impossible to ignore other concerns, such as the tougher competition in the industry, especially since the economy tanked.

In 2001 The Industrial and Labor Relations Review found the average trucker worked 62 hours a week with only nine days vacation a year. Those hours equal one and a half full-time jobs, according to the review, an academic journal published by Cornell University.

That means less time at home with family. Dissatisfaction with the amount of time truckers are able to spend with their families is a leading cause for high turnover rates in the trucking industry, a Transportation Research Board study found in 1998. The research board is a private, nonprofit institution, operating under the National Research Council.

Steely’s desire to be permanently homeward-bound is further enhanced by his longing to be with 13-year-old son. A rising star as the quarterback for his local middle school, Steely’s son uses Facebook and email to brief Steely on game recaps, schoolwork, and the life of a Nashville teenager.

The old days of the CB radio, celebrated in countless trucker songs, are gone. A Verizon wireless card plugged into his laptop computer connects Steely to his son. Other on-the-road comforts include a satellite radio, which he uses to listen to FOX News and NASCAR races.

Steely’s truck is also equipped with a fax machine and a printer that help him keep track of his orders and organize his business. The cab has all the amenities of a small apartment, including a refrigerator, a small TV set and a microwave oven. Pendleton uses the microwave oven in her truck cab to make her favorite on-the-road snack: Easy Mac.

Steely even brings his son with him for week-long trips when he is on his school breaks. That means Steely has to rearrange his cab so that his son can sleep on the twin bed’s top bunk, an area he usually uses for storage.

“I gotta dismantle everything up there,” he said, laughing.

But Steely isn’t complaining. He says he jumps at the chance to spend time with his son. And that does not happen as much as he’d like. (to be continued)

Written by beckybratu

September 22, 2009 at 7:15 pm

Going inside the truck cab (Part One)

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This story was originally published here.

Robin Steely’s used Freightliner truck is his “season pass” to see the country. In his 19-year career as a trucker he has gone deep sea fishing, seen Mount Rushmore, walked the same Black Hills that Crazy Horse once roamed, and attended more high-proile sporting events than he can count.

Robin Steely's son longs to be a long-haul trucker like his father. But the owner-operator hopes his 13-year-old quarterback completes his education instead. (HELEN COUPE/The Rockbridge Report)

Robin Steely's son longs to be a long-haul trucker like his father. But the owner-operator hopes his 13-year-old quarterback completes his education instead. (HELEN COUPE/The Rockbridge Report)

“The best part is seeing the country. I’ve seen, I’ve been, I’ve driven all 48 [states],” he said. “Just seeing the country abroad is unbelievable.”

A Nashville, Tenn. native with a disarming smile and a diamond-studded left ear, Steely decided to satisfy his travel lust when the local music company he worked for went out of business. He bought his own truck and has hauled freight ever since.

But now he says he would get out if he could.

“Right now, it’s rough. The economy is rough. If I could find something around the house that paid I’d go do that. Park this [truck] in the yard right now and go do that.” Then he offered to sell his truck to a camerawoman.

A combination of wanderlust and the need for a stable income draws all kinds of people from all over the country to trucking.  But the income isn’t as steady as it once was. The deregulation of the trucking industry in 1980 may have quadrupled the number of truckers on the road, but it sliced their incomes.

Most truckers in the late 1960s made about $60,000 a year. Today, the average is barely more than half that — $35,000, according to the American Trucking Association. The recent recession has added insult to injury, forcing many truckers to drive more miles and retire later than they had planned.

Most truckers fall into one of two business models: the owner-operator, and the company trucker. Owner-operators buy their own cab and get their own contracts. Company truckers are paid on a wage per mile basis to work for one trucking company, which sets up contracts with different shippers.

Owner-operators can make a lot more than company truckers, but expenses and risks are a lot higher, too.

It’s now more affordable than it used to be for a trucker to start his own business as an owner-operator. Before the recession hit, a trucker could buy a new rig for about $120,000. Now that same truck costs only $90,000.

But life as an independent owner-operator isn’t free from financial stress.  Everything from fuel to oil changes to repair work comes out of the trucker’s pocket. Steely said he recently had to pay $4,000 to fix his truck and get it back on the road.

Those are costs that company drivers don’t have to worry about. The company covers all operating expenses and provides its drivers with in-truck communication satellite devices that tell drivers the most effective way to get from one place to another.

Big companies such as J. B. Hunt and Schneider pay their drivers the top-tier rate of about 45 cents per mile. With the economy the way it is, more truckers prefer to work as company drivers. As businesses with reduced output are cutting down their distribution costs, owner-operators, who are paid by the load, suffer.

Steely said business has never been worse in the almost two decades he’s driven as an owner-operator.

“What I’m seeing is that everyone has to cut costs,” Steely said. “I’d say one of the top four costs of your company is your freight, and they’re trying to cut it down, cut it down, cut it down, and they’re driving it down pretty good.”

Ray Chism, an owner-operator from Memphis, Tenn., found a way to cope with the economy while doing his part to protect the environment. Using cooking oil from restaurants like KFC, Chism makes his own bio-fuel once a month, when he returns home. The week he spends at home is enough time for him to make enough fuel to last him for a substantial part of his journey.

“If I can make my own fuel for a dollar-five a gallon, then I’m gonna win,” Chism said. (to be continued)

Written by beckybratu

September 22, 2009 at 7:11 pm

Video: Sharing the road

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From Cameron’s blog:

Below is an in-depth broadcast piece on the dangers of Interstate 81 in Virginia that I created last spring.

I-81 used to be a state-of-the-art expressway in the 1960s, but now there’s an average of 20,000 trucks traveling  the road per day. High truck traffic, mountainous terrains and closed rest stops make I-81 one of the deadliest interstates, according to the Virginia Transportation Research Council. One family from Atlanta, Georgia understands the dangers of I-81 all too well.

Poll: The future of I-81

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Written by beckybratu

September 16, 2009 at 8:27 pm

Tractor trailer crash closes southbound lanes of I-81

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Southbound lanes are still closed at mile marker 141 in Roanoke County, Va. following a tractor trailer accident this morning. Virginia’s 511 service reported at noon E.T. that traffic was backed up for about five miles. Vehicles are being detoured onto Interstate 581. WDBJ7 in Roanoke reports that it is still unclear how long the southbound lanes of I-81 will be closed.

Virginia Voice reporter Cameron Steele was one of the motorists driving on the interstate this morning. She captured footage of southbound traffic being detoured across the median.

Later Cameron will bring you a detailed account of her experience on Virginia’s deadliest interstate. For up to the minute traffic information, call 511 or log onto

UPDATE (2:39 P.M. E.T.) The left lane of southbound I-81 is now open in Roanoke County, according to a VDOT news release. The right lane remains closed and northbound traffic is backed up.

Written by beckybratu

September 11, 2009 at 12:57 pm

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

Dense truck traffic, dangerous landscape raise I-81 safety concerns (Part Four)

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Searching for safety: The rest stop controversy

For Clyde Huffman, a West Virginia trucker who has been hauling on I-81 for almost 40 years, one of the newest highway hazards is finding a place to rest at night.


The Winchester area is one of the busiest hubs on the Virginia sector of Interstate 81.

Since 2005, long-haul truckers have been required by federal law to rest 10 hours every day. That means they need to find a place to park so they can sleep in the bunks their cabs are outfitted with.

Huffman said he likes the new regulations because they help to reduce fatigue, but they have created more competition for parking spaces. Also, the number of trucks on the road has quadrupled since he started driving in 1976. Available truck parking hasn’t kept up with the demand, said Huffman, who chose life behind the wheel to avoid the West Virginia mines.

“The biggest problem … right now is parking for trucks,” Huffman said. “There is nowhere to park.”

And unfortunately for Huffman, who tries to make it home every weekend to see his 17-month-old granddaughter, the parking problem is about to get worse.

VDOT has decided to close 19 of 41 of its public safety rest areas in a balancing act to attempt to fix a $2.6 billion budget shortfall. Eight of those rest areas set to close are on I-81.

Jeff Caldwell, VDOT chief of communications, said that originally VDOT planned to shut down 25 of its rest areas in order to give the department a large portion of the $15 million it is obligated to cut from its services operation budget – money VDOT uses for roadway maintenance such as mowing, replacing signs and staffing the rest areas.

“It has been one of the most controversial cuts we’ve been looking at,” said Caldwell. In a press release, he said VDOT’s decision to continue to operate six of the rest areas originally slated to close was a compromise between its plans and the concerns of truckers, localities and commuters along its interstates. Four of the 12 rest areas that just barely missed the chopping block are on I-81.

Huffman said that good parking spaces are a necessity now more than ever since the federal regulations changed. But in Virginia especially, Huffman said, parking spaces – private truck stops and public rest areas – simply aren’t there. To further handicap a trucker’s chances of finding a safe place to rest on I-81 is dangerous and just “plain crazy,” said Huffman.

Steve Owings said he’s on the side of the truckers.

“There are nowhere near enough places already for them to rest, and the fact that Virginia is closing the existing places is just a travesty.

“We actually have the truck drivers’ situation foremost in our minds … because frankly, the situation we’ve got now is not only unsafe, it’s immoral,” Owings said.

Caldwell argued that the Commonwealth’s rest areas serve as only 10 percent of available truck parking throughout the state. The real problem, he said, lies in the private sector and lack of parking spaces there. And the proposed closings – which will most likely be passed by the Commonwealth Transportation Board in July – are just a small portion of the sacrifices that the bad economy has forced VDOT to make.

VDOT has held numerous public hearings in localities along I-81. Caldwell said those hearings helped the department assess public opinion about the proposed cuts, including the closing of the rest areas. He received enough feedback from the hearings to fill two file cabinets, he said, and VDOT has reviewed all of the comments it has received.

“This resulted in some changes, which allow us to reach our financial targets while meeting our customers’ most critical needs,” said VDOT Commissioner David Ekern in the same press release.

But even with the revised plan, there will be only six rest areas along the length of the corridor’s 325 miles. Caldwell said there isn’t anywhere else for VDOT to cut funds.

“We have already laid off 20 percent of our work force,” said Caldwell. “Short of that, we don’t know where else to get the money.” Still, Caldwell said, he is trying to help find some respite for the truckers.

Huffman hasn’t seen any respite yet. He says he doesn’t even stop at rest areas along I-81 anymore because he knows he will be fined because of the two-hour limit the state has put on parking. That means truckers like Huffman often resort to considerably more risky parking spots, like Interstate exit ramps.

But you get fined for parking on those too, he said. State troopers wake truckers up all the time to tell them to move on from the rest areas or exit ramps. But that means Huffman and his fellow truckers have to make a dangerous choice: obey the state parking law, or the federal rest time?

And Virginia state police, Huffman said, are not sympathetic.

“You’re told that you need to plan your route better, and to go on through their state,” he said.  “You know, I mean when there’s no parking, there is no parking,”

Darrell Lewis, a trucker who has spent his time on the road hauling gas and hazardous materials, said that he has had many run-ins with state police while parking on I-81 exit ramps.

“I’ve been woken up… at two o’clock in the morning, out on a ramp, not hurting anybody,” Lewis said. “[They say] ‘You’re breaking the law, you gotta go.’ ‘Well, where do I go?’ ‘I don’t know but you can’t stay here.’”

Sgt. Robert Carpentieri, public information officer for the State Police, Salem district, said that in his 20 years as a state trooper he has never asked a trucker to leave a rest area, even if his two-hour hourglass has run out. But when he comes across a truck parked on an exit ramp or along the side of I-81, his duty to enforce safety overrides his compassion.

“If they’re parked on the emergency shoulder and there’s ‘No Parking’ signs we ask them to leave because that creates a traffic hazard,” Carpentieri said.

Carpentieri acknowledged that even without the closing of the rest stops, there just isn’t enough parking for the 40 percent truck traffic that makes up the corridor’s total on an average day.

“I would just say that there probably is not enough parking in truck stops or rest areas for the amount of traffic, truck traffic we have coming through here,” he said.

But Bobby Berkstresser, owner of Lee-Hi, a private truck stop in Rockbridge County, said he thinks the need for more parking is minimal. Lee-Hi, which has 300 parking spaces, and other private truck stops can handle the parking demand, Berkstresser said.

Teresa Fisk, general manager of private truck stop White's, thinks there is enough parking in the private sector for trucks traveling on I-81. (HELEN COUPE/The Rockbridge Report)

Teresa Fisk, general manager of private truck stop White's, thinks there is enough parking in the private sector for trucks traveling on I-81. (HELEN COUPE/The Rockbridge Report)

“There’s some nights you might have to look [for parking.],”said Berkstresser. “But the private sector has always shown that, in fact, if the business is out there, we’re more than willing to increase the number of parking spots that would be available.”

Others have been clamoring for the commercialization of the rest areas VDOT plans to close as a potential solution to I-81’s parking shortcomings.

Cline said that the privatization proposal is one that he’s heard tossed around a lot. The problem is that it breaks federal law. The law was originally put in place to protect local business communities on and around the interstate by forbidding the private sector to invest in or benefit from public exits. But Cline said he still thinks that the privatization of rest areas should be studied.

Caldwell is on board with exploring commercialization options, too. He said that the Commonwealth Transportation Board petitioned the federal government in March to try to get some dispensation from the law.

But for now, the closing of rest areas on the clogged corridor looms large, and truckers like Huffman and Lewis won’t be seeing any new parking perks. That puts truckers – and the other drivers with whom they share the road – in danger.

“You’re going to find trucks all over the ramps, which is supposed to be illegal anyway,” Lewis predicted. “It’s going to be a problem.”

Searching for safety: Distant decisions

Safety and road design problems facing I-81 won’t be solved only by rumble strips and wider shoulders. Suggestions for long-term improvements have run the gamut – from a big-name consortium’s failed proposal to widen the interstate to a grassroots organization’s clamoring for a rail solution.

But for now, VDOT can afford only the quick fix. Steve Owings said he and others with I-81 agendas hope the highway bill in September will provide the dollars needed to establish longer-lasting solutions.

“We’ve got this once every six years legislative opportunity,” said Owings.

Photo credit: / CC BY-NC 2.0

Written by Cameron Steele

August 20, 2009 at 9:17 pm