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A better I-81 plan

By John D. Hutchinson V

After a string of recent accidents in the Shenandoah Valley, truck traffic on Interstate 81 has been headline news throughout the corridor.

Contrary to recent claims, I-81 is not the most dangerous interstate in Virginia -- neither is it near the top of the list. It does have several trouble spots that, if addressed, will dramatically increase safety on the roadway. This modest approach, along with the shift of freight from trucks to rail, would go far toward addressing the I-81 challenge.

Virginia Department of Transportation's current plan to fix I-81 involves widening all 325 miles of the interstate, most of it with two additional lanes each direction and some of it as wide as 12 lanes, at a cost of $11.4 billion. This plan was completed in 2007, despite a record-breaking number of public comments submitted in opposition to wholesale widening.

It is important to put the $11.4 billion price tag into perspective. VDOT is working on four mammoth construction projects to solve Northern Virginia's traffic nightmares: the Springfield Mixing Bowl, the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project, the I-395/I-495 HOT lanes and the Dulles Metrorail extension.

VDOT's plan to make I-81 wider than the Capital Beltway is more expensive than all of these projects combined.

Fortunately, there are viable alternatives to this excessive and unrealistic plan.

Primary among these is rail.

Norfolk Southern is two years into a $3 billion rail upgrade along what it calls the Crescent Corridor -- centered on I-81 -- from New York to Texas that will divert more than 1 million trucks to rail each year, including up to 25 percent of the trucks on I-81 in Virginia.

Public investment will be needed to complete this project, but dramatically less than the $11.4 billion that would be needed to widen the interstate. Rail is not only cost-effective. It moves more freight using less gas and with lower carbon emissions.

Speaking to a group of Virginia business leaders in 2007, Norfolk Southern CEO Wick Moorman summed up the case, stating, "It's a lot easier and a lot faster to tack on another track to a railroad than to add another lane to a highway ... If there is a good solution that costs between $2 and $3 billion and takes a few years and an $11 billion solution that takes a lot longer, then maybe reason prevails at the end of the day."

In addition, traffic rates and death rates on I-81 have been on the decline since 2004; stepped up law enforcement has been proven to work; and improving local road networks -- a much less expensive option than massive widening -- will reduce local traffic on the interstate.

VDOT claims that there is no money to accomplish its grandiose plan for I-81. That may be true -- for now. But that plan, which has been approved by the Federal Highway Administration, will direct VDOT's work on I-81 as money does become available. Indeed, the plan is already being implemented along segments of the interstate in Rockbridge, Montgomery and Wythe counties.

As Virginians ponder how best to spend scarce transportation dollars, we should ask our candidates if they are willing to commit to improving the plan for the I-81 corridor.

Policy makers are often presented with a thorny choice: either the low-cost option or the environmentally friendly one. For I-81, we have an alternative that is both. It would be hard to imagine Virginia's next governor not taking it.

Hutchinson, a certified land use planner in Staunton, is a planning consultant for the Shenandoah Valley Network.


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