Topic: Driving along I-81 can give you an adrenaline rush

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Jim Wallace

Driving along I-81 can give you an adrenaline rush




Driving along I-81 can give you an adrenaline rush. So can the really cool, creative proposals for addressing traffic congestion on Virginia's longest Interstate highway.


Looking for a thrill ride? Don’t mess with Busch Gardens or Kings Dominion. Try driving down Interstate 81 between Roanoke and Blacksburg… at night… in the slashing rain… as tractor-trailer after tractor-trailer barrels past, buffeting you with its slipstream and dousing your windshield with spray. Guaranteed: It’s an experience you’ll never forget.

Virginia offers a wide assortment of hellish traffic conditions, from the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel to the mixing bowl at Interstate 95/495, but nothing compares to I-81. It’s one thing to creep along, frustrated, in stop-and-go traffic. It’s quite another to fly down the highway, terrified, while hemmed in by 16-wheelers that could mash you like road kill.

Daily traffic on I-81, as measured by the number of vehicles, runs between 30,000 to 40,000 per mile -- less than half the number on the worst stretches of Interstate 95. But the traffic mix tells quite another story. It’s not the number of cars but the number of tractor-trailers that makes a trip down I-81 so hair raising.

Typically, heavy trucks constitute less than five percent of Virginia’s Interstate traffic, excepting a couple of spots on Interstate 95 around Fredericksburg and Petersburg, where it spikes up to 10 percent. But tractor-trailers account for 20 percent or more of the traffic along the full length of I-81 from Winchester to Bristol, hitting a fevered pitch of 37 percent between Staunton and Lexington. Incredibly, three percent of all traffic along that stretch consists of trucks with double trailers!

Driving on I-81 is not just nerve racking: It’s unsafe. According to Virginia Department of Transportation records, I-81 was the scene of 2,845 accidents causing 32 deaths and 1,628 injuries between March 2001 and August 2002, making it one of the most dangerous interstates in the country. Meanwhile, I-81 is developing big-city congestion in places, especially in the Roanoke metropolitan area where mountainous terrain constrains the ability of motorists to travel alternative routes.

I-81, clogged now, is heading for gridlock. Long-haul truck traffic is projected to increase from 18 million truckloads annually to 29 million by 2020. Given current state resources, it could take the state 30 to 50 years to fund VDOT plans for expanding the interstate from two to three lanes in each direction. If western Virginia’s main transportation corridor chokes up, economic development in the region -- far more dependent upon manufacturing and distribution than eastern Virginia -- could sputter and stall.

Fortunately, under the Public-Private Transportation Act of 1995, Virginia possesses the ability to undertake major transportation projects through public-private partnerships. Last year, Gov. Mark R. Warner challenged the private sector to develop innovative proposals to overhaul the I-81 transportation corridor. VDOT's Request for Proposal expanded the project scope beyond the construction of new lanes to encompass proposals such as shifting truck traffic to railroads and incorporating intelligent transportation systems.

The response has been gratifying. Two large industry consortia – STAR Solutions, lead by Halliburton subsidiary KBR Inc., and a second group headed by construction giant Fluor Corp. – have submitted detailed proposals for transforming the corridor within 15 years or less. What’s more, the discussion has stimulated some outside-the-box thinking, not reflected in the formal proposals, such as a proposal for a truck-piggybacking service on the Norfolk Southern rail line parallelling I-81 between Harrisburg, Pa., and Knoxville, Tenn.

VDOT is expected to pick one of the competing proposals after completing an environmental review process. Regardless of which consortium it ultimately chooses, the exercise is moving Virginia decisively in a new direction: tapping the private sector to flesh out new strategic options. The I-81 project could provide a model for tackling seemingly intractable transportation problems elsewhere in Virginia.

STAR (Safer Transport and Roadways) Solutions, the first consortium to submit a proposal, boldly advocated expanding I-81 to four lanes each way, a task it expects to complete within 12 to 15 years. The distinctive feature is the dedication of the two inside lanes to long-haul truck traffic, separated by a barrier from the lanes reserved for cars, buses and local trucks.

Segregating truck traffic would eliminate the safety problem caused by intermingling cars and trucks on the same lanes. STAR would finance the construction largely through tolls on long-haul trucks but would offset costs through improved trucking productivity. Tolls would be "boothless," administered electronically. Dedicated truck lanes, combined with electronic monitoring and communication technologies, would support "plattooning," or the massing of trucks for improved flow and safety.

STAR also would lay fiber-optic conduit down the highway, providing the backbone for "smart" enhancements such as electronic traffic-alert signage, Internet access at rest areas, and integration with the state Transportation Emergency Operations Center. The proposal includes a 20-year pavement warranty, and a number of multi-modal transportation improvements.

STAR estimates the cost of its proposals to be $7.54 billion (in constant 2002 dollars). Financing would come from three main funding sources: VDOT funds earmarked for I-81 in the current Six-Year transportation plan, federal funds earmarked for separating cars and trucks on interstate highways, and tolls on trucks. The tolls, starting at 12 cents per mile in 2006, would escalate to 27.4 cents per mile when the project is complete. A truck traversing the full length of I-81 would pay $90.

Fluor Virginia, by contrast, developed a relatively stripped-down proposal. Fluor would limit the widening of I-81 to three lanes, compared to STAR’s four, supplemented by 10 truck-climbing lanes on particularly steep grades. The new lane, in the Fluor plan, would be limited to cars only. The plan also calls for improvements to railroad tracks paralleling the interstate, plus installation of a wireless telecommunications backbone to support traveler information, traffic management systems and work-zone safety.

An enticing aspect of the Fluor plan is the low, $1.84 billion price tag. Fluor would finance construction through tolls, but it would require no state money, allowing VDOT to apply funds earmarked for I-81 to other projects.

The lower cost also would mean lower tolls. Fluor proposes setting up tolls at three locations along I-81, exempting most local traffic from paying tolls. However, both trucks and passenger cars alike would be subject to the tolls. Upon completion of the project, passenger cars would pay $9 to pass through all three tolls; trucks would pay $30.

Based on projected toll charges, the Fluor plan may prove less objectionable to truckers, distributors and manufacturers, the most vocal opponents to tolls. But in theory, the STAR proposal could mollify trucking companies by boosting trucker productivity. The key question is whether high-tech traffic management and "plattooning" offset the $90 truck tolls. Assuming an average operating cost of $35 per hour and a six-hour travel time from Maryland to Tennessee, STAR's concrete freightway would have to shave two hours off the trip to make its high-priced proposal more attractive than Fluor's. That could well require raising speed limits to European autobahn speeds of 90 miles per hour.

The drawback of the Fluor plan is that it adds only one lane (each way). It remains, at best, an intermediate-term fix.

The intriguing thing about the I-81 solicitation is the way it has flushed out novel perspectives. Anderson & Associates, a Blacksburg engineering firm that has contributed to the Fluor proposal, has advanced a radical notion of its own: teaming with Norfolk Southern to offer a tractor-trailer piggybacking service between Harrisburg and Knoxville as a way to get trucks off I-81.

Rather than viewing I-81 in a purely Virginia context, Anderson sets the challenge in a multi-state context -- indeed, even an international one. In a North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) economy, I-81 in Virginia is only one segment of a transportation artery that stretches from the huge urban markets of the Northeastern U.S. all the way to Mexico. Many tractor-trailers are traveling the full distance.

Anderson's notion, which it deems complementary to the formal Fluor proposal, would raise roughly $2.3 billion to upgrade Norfolk Southern track between Harrisburg and Knoxville. Financial details are fuzzy but Anderson suggests that legislation for creating a federal railroad authority, now working its way through Congress, might provide a financing vehicle.

In contrast to conventional intermodal operations in which containers are switched from trucks to railroad cars, Norfolk Southern would carry the entire tractor-trailer, including the driver, who could eat and sleep in a passenger car. According to Anderson's calculations, about 16,000 trucks per day are making that 650-mile trip already. If the piggybacking service could capture 25 percent market share -- removing 4,000 trucks daily from I-81 -- amortizing the cost of the railroad upgrade over 30 years would come out to $114 per truck. That's more expensive than the STAR option, but Anderson's proposal has one possible advantage: New federal regulations may limit the number of miles per day that a trucker can drive. Riding the rails for 650 miles to catch some Zs would be a lot more efficient than pulling into a truck stop for 10 hours.

The Anderson preliminary proposal leaves many technical questions unanswered, and it has yet to be endorsed by a major player like the Fluor consortium or Norfolk Southern. Its significance lies in the fresh thinking and new perspectives that it brings to bear. It's safe to say that VDOT planners, conceiving the I-81 corridor as a Virginia problem requiring a highway solution, never would have conceived the idea of a Pennsylvania-

Tennessee railroad service.

VDOT has some tough decisions ahead. Both consortia are lobbying hard for their proposals. Meanwhile, Virginia's trucking and manufacturing interests are resisting tolls that will add to their cost of doing business. No one wants to pay the tolls -- but without them, both proposals are dead on arrival.

Communities along the I-81 corridor are trying to figure out what the competing proposals would mean to them. Economic developers are assessing the trade-offs between the certainty of increased congestion versus the potentially negative impact that tolls would have on corporate site location decisions.

None of the options are painless. Tolls will impose an economic penalty upon the businesses and communities along I-81. But the cost of doing nothing, arguably, is even greater. At least VDOT has options. Whatever the final outcome, western Virginia surely will be better off than if the department had tackled the job all alone.

-- June 9, 2003


Sir ,

Its a rush when i'm setting in the big truck and a car cuts me off or rides my rear .

Trucks pay at the least $ 10,000.00 in taxes each year your not the only one paying taxes .

By the way its 18 wheels not 16.

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