Partial Verdict for Interstate 81

For Interstate 81, rails are out and tolls are in, reports Garren Shipley with the Northern Virginia Daily. Those are the two main points to emerge from the Final Environmental Impact Study for I-81, which will guide how the Virginia Department of Transportation approaches the highway in the years ahead.

On trains:

A “Steel Interstate” proposal put forward by Rail Solution, a Shenandoah Valley group lobbying for a greater emphasis on freight rail rather than road expansion, just won’t work, according to the report.

Supporters are correct when they argue that a substantial portion of long truck trips would take to the rails if the $3.5 billion-plan were implemented, according to the a section of the report dealing with freight diversion.

Of the 7.3 million 500-mile or greater truck trips forecast for I-81 in 2035, 16.6 percent, or about 1.2 million, would take the train instead. But the vast majority of trucks, 21 million, are on trips of less than 500 miles, according to the study, and would be much less likely to take the time to offload their cargo onto trains.

On tolls:

Tolls also will be a part of I-81’s future, according to the document. Federal officials say they want to go forward with plans to levy fees of anywhere from 7 cents to 14 cents per mile.

Significant numbers of trucks and passenger cars would try to duck the tolls by using U.S. 11, the report says, but there would be wildly different impacts up and down western Virginia, depending on the location and toll charged.

In Washington County, near Bristol, a low toll would put 420 more trucks on I-81 every day while having no impact on U.S. 11. But in Shenandoah and Frederick counties, a high toll on trucks only would take 3,400 off of I-81 and put 3,190 more onto U.S. 11.

Tolls on interstates are generally forbidden, under the theory that taxpayers already paid to build the highways through federal and state taxes on gasoline. But Congress has carved out two exceptions in recent years, one for a “congestion pricing” pilot program, the other for a “reconstruction” pilot program.

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3 responses to “Partial Verdict for Interstate 81”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    Tolls on I-81….hmmmm….I am skeptical.

    What’s the cost to upgrade the exit ramps so they could handle all of the backups that tolls would cause?

    Getting on and off of I-81 is the most dangerous part of the drive, IMO. Most of the entrance/exit ramps from Harrisonburg north to Winchester are waaaaay too short, many have you entering the road at steep inclines which slows you down, and many backup traffic at peak times onto the road because they are too short.


  2. Anonymous Avatar

    The political reality is that state law now allows tolls only on trucks on I-81, not on cars. That was tested again this session and Wampler won — the provision to prohibit tolls on passenger cars on I-81 survived. Absent a separate lane, how do you toll trucks but not cars? Get them at the weight stations maybe…and who could possibly argue that it is fair to toll only the trucks?

    Many have made the point that the rail option was being hugely oversold and got hooted at for their trouble. I’m sure the True Believers will resist this study, as well.

  3. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I’m impressed with the destination/origin study for both road and rail as well as determining where trucks would exit to avoid the tolls.

    But anyone who has an auto navigation unit knows that when it calculates a point “A” to point “B” route that both time and distance are involved and that even routes that are “shorter” in distance can be “longer” in time.

    Because trucks take time to slow down and speed up and because Route 11 has many signal lights and built-up hamlets – I’m a real doubter that this would be a popular option for truckers but even if it were – it would almost surely result in more signal lights where there are none right now because of safety concerns – and that would add even more time to their toll-avoidance tactics.

    And if they do anyhow – just set the toll on the rest of I-81 to compensate.

    Major companies like WalMart – I cannot imagine them encouraging/directing their drivers to do this on/off “dance” if for no other reason than this kind of activity raises the risk level of accidents.

    All it takes is one fender bender on Route 11 to delay a needed shipment.

    As far tolls in general – I have my usual frustration with folks and that is – how do you want to pay for improvements? The question is not “do you want to pay”?

    We can argue about the kind and type of upgrades that might be needed but the option of improving I-81 without raising taxes or charging tolls – is not an option.

    One penny on the gas tax – even if there were political will brings in about 80 million while we are talking multiple billions of dollars to upgrade I-81. The numbers simply don’t “work”.

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