Interstate 81 Update: Rail Lines and Passing Lanes

When Gov. Timothy M. Kaine was running for governor two years ago, he presented some attractive ideas for dealing with congestion along Interstate 81, the major transportation bottleneck in Western Virginia. In place of the competing, multi-billion dollar proposals advanced by private interests during the Warner administration, Kaine advocated less ambitious — and less expensive — solutions. First, add new truck-passing lanes where they were needed, and second, divert container traffic from trucks to rail.

As the public-private partnership proposals languish, it looks like state transportation policy is inching closer and closer to Kaine’s campaign ideas. In his story published today, “Relieving Interstate 81,” Peter Galuszka brings the I-81 saga up to date.

In an Environmental Impact Statement, VDOT has reached two important policy conclusions regarding I-81. One was to nix the proposed “truck only” lanes on the grounds that they created too much capacity for trucks and not enough for automobiles. The other was to finance improvements through truck tolls. Meanwhile, the only specific projects on the drawing boards call for spending $140 million to build truck-passing lanes near Christiansburg and Lexington. That sounds an awful lot like Kaine’s campaign plan.

Closing the loop on Kaine’s campaign proposal, Norfolk Southern now has proposed a $2 billion upgrade for its rail system with the idea of taking one million trucks per year off the nation’s highways. The railroad is asking Virginia, which would benefit from the diversion of traffic of I-81, to chip in $40 million.

It’s not clear how many trucks would be taken off Virginia highways, and there’s a good chance that organic growth in truck traffic would fill I-81 back up within a decade or less. But there’s no permanent solution in a growing economy. If $180 million — which would buy us the truck-passing lanes, plus the Norfolk Southern upgrades — can buy congestion relief for five to 10 years, it’s probably more cost effective than any other plan out there. But I’d like to see more authoritative numbers before drawing any solid conclusions.

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13 responses to “Interstate 81 Update: Rail Lines and Passing Lanes”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    “add new truck-passing lanes where they were needed”


    I-81 is a series of peaks and valleys….I think what needs to be added are new “car-passing” lanes so people in passenger cars can get around trucks when you are going up hill.

  2. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    let’s call them new lanes to be used for passing trucks.

    I travelled I-81 last week and in my mind – without question – is the lack of a 3rd lane that prohibits trucks.

    It still won’t stop all the “trains” that are created when the lead guy in the “train” thinks it’s perfectly fine to take 10 miles to pass a truck… (apparently on the premise that if they go 5 miles an hour faster.. for 30 seconds to get around the truck that they could be struck dead by lightning for doing so – but I do digress)..

    anyhow.. yes.. selected areas of 3 lanes… perhaps even 4 for a short distance so that everyone else can get around the “blocker” types…

  3. Brian L. Avatar
    Brian L.

    I’m ambivalent on this idea, considering that the Commonwealth is not even keeping up with the *BASIC* functions of maintaining I-81 at this point. Up at the I-81/I-66 junction, the roads seem to still be the original 1960’s era concrete, and it is in serious disrepair.

    It used to be that we Tidewater Virginians mocked North Carolina for their poorly-maintained interstates. It seems that the tables, after 20 years, have been completely reversed. Pity.

    One would think that the *FIRST* step in solving a transportation problem would be to at least maintain what’s already there.

    As for congestion, wouldn’t it be more cost-effective to declare that commercial traffic of a certain size or larger are *required* to use the right lane on our State’s roadways? If the trucks were forbidden from passing in the left on I-81, that would keep that lane free for cars.. and it sure as heck would make I-95 through Prince William County a whole lot safer.


  4. Jim Wamsley Avatar
    Jim Wamsley

    VDOT is not considering a rail option for getting trucks off I-81. They are instead segmenting the project in the next EIS phase so that rail will not be competitive. They eliminated rail in the first phase by only considering a State line to State line rail alternative. NS is looking at New Orleans and Memphis to the port of Bayonne, N.J.

  5. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    so… what keeps .. or what kept NS from doing their own thing no matter what VDOT does or does not do?

    That’s the part that puzzles me.

    or let’s put this another way..

    what could VDOT do .. or not do .. that might affect NS thinking of what they might build or not build?

    Are those decisions separate?

    Can.. VDOT… predict what types of improvements on I-81 .. might affect decisions by trucking companies to use NS Rail Or not?)

  6. Anonymous Avatar

    A few things per this article,

    “Norfolk Southern Corp. announced plans Wednesday for a $2 billion-plus rail corridor stretching from Louisiana to New Jersey that the freight railroad said would speed cargo shipments and reduce highway congestion by diverting truck traffic.”

    “Virginia has committed $40 million in seed money for the Crescent Corridor project, which would run along Interstate 81, a major truck route, said Mike McClellan, Norfolk Southern’s vice president of intermodal and automotive marketing. “

    Also –

    “The railroad also is prepared to “invest a lot in this corridor … up to an amount that provides us an acceptable return on our investment,” McClellan said. He declined to give a dollar figure. ”

    As far as I can tell this is a quasi “joint project”. Both NS and Virginia will benefit from upgrading the rail line. I didn’t do the research but I am sure other states will chip in money as well.

    If the railroad is only going to chip in enough money to get an “acceptable return on our investment” I would hope Virginia does the same.

  7. Jim Wamsley Avatar
    Jim Wamsley

    If Virginia were looking for an “acceptable return on our investment” VDOT would choose to upgrade arterials with better intersections and maintain bridges. VDOT instead is planning big projects to get the federal match.

    I-81 is a good example. Spend 1/3rd less doing spot improvements to I-81 and improving the NS rail line or spend only on I-81 to carry the same number of trucks. Make the economic choice for the taxpayer. Waste the taxpayers dollar. Your choice.

    The return on investment rail can generate is limited by the subsidy that the drivers pay to the truckers every time they use the interstate.

    Wise investment in rail is precluded by Virginia legislation. The decision is not an economic decision.

  8. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse

    Stop the insanity! 2.8% growth rate in truck travel is not “organic,” it is “cancerous”

    In ten years 4.8 mil trucks grow to 6.3 mil, in 20 years it is 8.3 mil and in 30, 10.9 mil.

    Shenandoah Valley is not wide enough for the lanes of I-81 in 50 years.

    As we point out in “The Conservative Imperative” the goal has to be more happiness, safety and prosperity with less people and less consumption. That means fewer trucks, not more.


  9. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    this is the part about the market – market forces in particular that I allude to….

    Whether it is WalMart or Food Lion or 7-11 – the business model is the same and that is to deliver replacement stock “just in time” and to not pay rent to store unsold stock.

    In other words – you don’t order a case of widgets and put 5 out front and 7 “in back”. Instead, you get the 5 you need and you get it the next day via truck not from the back room.

    And that works just dandy because the distribution center gets a real-time order from each store.. “builds” their delivery and sends it out once a day or twice a week or whatever.

    So … the business model is to not build stores that have to be bigger (more expensive)… just so they can store unsold stock – but to build stores that utilize most of it’s footprint for actively selling products.

    Now..I’m presumming that no one is in favor of passing a law that makes it illegal for a company to use “just-in-time” shipping as a business practice – right?

    I’m also presumming that the MOST that could be done is to equitably charge the companies the actual cost of providing the infrastructure to support their business model… and not higher fees for “punishment”.

    in other words.. we cannot charge the heck out of them with no relationship to the actual costs and use the fee as an economic hammer to discourage a business strategy that is claimed – by some – as contrary to a public policy encouraging regional settlement patterns.

    As I said.. I don’t think that just because something is a business strategy that it is legitimate solely because it is a business strategy.

    On the other hand, I don’t think we can unilaterally condemn a business strategy because it “messes up” our ideas of how settlement patterns “should” work.

    So ….. do we really want to be telling shipping companies – how to run their businesses – if we ourselves have never run a shipping company?

    or how about this – would you have Norfolk Southern put in charge of VDOT in Virginia?

  10. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    “I’m also presumming that the MOST that could be done is to equitably charge the companies the actual cost of providing the infrastructure to support their business model… and not higher fees for “punishment”.”

    :-), :-), :-), ;-).

    Success, at last,

  11. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    Ok, I have not travelled I-81 lately. All my relatves out there are dead.

    But from what I remember, a few up=-hill truck passing lanes wlould not be too much to ask.

    I drive my tractor over the road, locally, with over wide farm implements behind.

    Frankly, it scares me ____less. I’m terrified that he Harley Club, or the Porsche Club will meet me coming the opposite direction, at high speed.

    I use guard cars with flashing lights in front. I only do it at off hours. Mostly to no avail.

    If there is any place to pull over, I gladly will. But, I have to tell you that a four foot deep ditch, a culvert, and no shoulder is not inviting, even at 15 MPH.

    I’d kill for enough turnouts where I could pull off without getttng killed or stuck. Maryland’s rural roads look lke heaven by comparison. Even the worst of them have something that resembles a shoulder more than it resembles a tank trap.

    I’m pretty sure those truckers on I-81 feel the same way.


    “we cannot charge the heck out of them with no relationship to the actual costs and use the fee as an economic hammer to discourage a business strategy that is claimed – by some – as contrary to a public policy encouraging regional settlement patterns.”


    just because something is a business strategy that (doesn’t mean that ) it is legitimate solely because it is a business strategy.

    Well, Yeah. But if it isn’t legitimate, then it will fail.

    We all agree that rail is “better”.

    So why isn’t it cheaper? Why has it failed in all but a few (gross mass) markets?

    If it is really better, then maybe we are not supporting it enough. And, if it is realy better, them maybe they need to prove it. Show us our ROI, even if it includes non market environmental values.

    When you do, put a price on the non-market values.

  12. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    “I don’t think we can unilaterally condemn a business strategy because it “messes up” our ideas of how settlement patterns “should” work.”

    If you had to summarize my last four years of complaints here, that would be it. The only thing I would change is to make it read

    “I don’t think we can unilaterally condemn a business (or personal) strategy because it “messes up” our ideas of how settlement patterns “should” work.”

    It is all about balance. Balance is a dynamic condition, which means we must allow for constant change in order to maintain it. Anything we do to “petrify” how settlement patterns “should” work is doomed to result in a society that has too many plates spinning on too few sticks.

  13. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    and again…

    the “balance” is between government rules/laws/dictates justified to produce/maintain a public good –


    the market reaction – which will find a way around policies and laws that have such a disruption as to pervert the original intent of the public good.

    So.. yes.. I say.. charge the heck out of 18 wheelers who are engaged in a business strategy that depends on publically-funded infrastructure to work.

    That cost – should belong to the truckers – with the full understanding that it will be passed on to consumers.

    The difference is that when the truckers actually have the costs – competition will drive them towards more cost effective strategies whereas tax-funded roads will drive them toward lobbying legislatures to raise taxes for more roads – and that path – is inherently wasteful and inefficient and simply not cost-effective.

    So the most bang for the buck for taxpayers is to let business find the most cost effective strategies that lets the strongest competitors prevail rather than using tax dollars to subsidize them all – basically taking competition out of the equation.

    I don’t see how government can decide what are the best business strategies. It’s primary role is to ensure that tax money is not spent to enrich businesses.

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