Interstate 81 the focus of efforts in Virginia

| 9/25/2006

Thoughts of adding truck-only lanes and the tolls that would come with them along Interstate 81 in Virginia appear to have been parked. Instead, a push is expected for expanding freight rail lines along the corridor to take trucks off the road.

The Commonwealth Transportation Board was presented a plan last week from state highway officials that would trim improvements on I-81 to speed them up. The board is expected to vote on the plan Oct. 11.

The Virginia Department of Transportation plan drops the proposed widening of all 325 miles of the interstate in the state to eight lanes.

VDOT officials said the state needs to move more swiftly on the corridor by making safety improvements that would include more truck-climbing lanes on mountains and longer ramps at a few interchanges, The Associated Press reported.

Officials with the agency said changes are needed to cope with truck traffic that is expected to triple on I-81 by 2035 while the number of cars is likely to double.

With that in mind, a Northern Virginia lawmaker has introduced three pieces of legislation to address safety and ease congestion along the route during a special session on transportation that starts Wednesday, Sept. 27.

Delegate Ben Cline, R-Amherst, is looking to advance efforts that are aimed at widening some segments of the interstate, increasing the number of state troopers patrolling the corridor, and promoting rail improvements to divert some of the freight now being hauled by trucks.

The first bill – HB5073 – would tap private groups to speed construction of limited third lanes for truck climbing on steep stretches along I-81.

The bill also would halt VDOT from considering a proposal from a road builders consortium, dubbed Star Solutions, to add two separate truck lanes in both directions to run the length of the roadway in the state.

Another bill – HB5074 – would require the Virginia State Police to add 10 additional troopers to patrol the corridor. Another 20 would patrol Interstates 64 and 95.

One other bill – HB5075 – would provide tax credits for rail companies that improve their lines for intermodal freight transport.

Gov. Tim Kaine and Secretary of Transportation Pierce Homer have expressed support for expanding freight rail service as part of an overall solution for the interstate, The News Leader in Staunton, VA, reported.

“We are committed to a balanced approach for improving I-81,” Kaine said in a written statement. “A comprehensive strategy must prioritize safety improvements and include enhanced freight rail service.”

Homer and VDOT officials say two studies show that rail upgrades could take 2 percent to 3 percent of the truck traffic off the corridor.