Interstate 81, which slices through western Virginia, is one of the most heavily trafficked highways in the Old Dominion. Nearly 12 million trucks travel the Interstate, accounting for 42% of all interstate truck traffic in the state and transporting more than $300 billion in goods per year. The tractor-trailers make other drivers miserable by hogging lanes as they pass one another on steep mountain inclines. Typically, trucks are involved in the 30 or so crashes a year that take six hours or longer to clear and generate miles-long backups.
Tractor-trailers have been a nagging headache for decades because the situation has defied an economically and politically viable remedy. There was serious talk some twenty years ago about imposing tolls to finance a multibillion-dollar upgrade from Winchester to Bristol, but the idea provoked fierce local resistance. The Virginia Department of Transportation opted instead for a less ambitious — and far less expensive — program of making spot improvements to alleviate the worst bottlenecks.
Now the talk of tolls is back. Legislation enacted this year orders the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) to complete a study of tolling options by the end of 2018. The law restricts the parameters of the study, however, in a way that presupposes the outcome. The CTB, states SB 871, “shall not consider options that toll all users of Interstate 81” nor “commuters” but may consider “high occupancy toll lanes” and “tolls on heavy commercial vehicles.”
Reports the Bristol Herald Courier of the legislation:
“It is very specific in tolling either hot lanes, express lanes or a heavy commercial vehicle toll. The objective is to not toll commuters,” said Ben Mannell, VDOT’s deputy director of planning. “They’ve also asked us to look at minimizing the impact to heavy commercial vehicles, if we did have a tolling scenario.”
Part of the study will focus on the latest crash data, areas that have a high number of crashes, congestion, delays and the potential for operational improvements for incident response in case of a major crash, Mannell said.
The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) will hold a dozen public hearings this summer.
Bacon’s bottom line. Take note: Commuters (i.e. voters) are not to be inconvenienced. By exempting commuters from tolls, the legislation envisions co-opting I-81, which was built for inter-city and interstate traffic, for the purpose of local travel. Virginia seems destined to repeat the error that turned Interstates 95, 395, and 495 in the Washington metropolitan area into traffic hell-holes that disrupt the flow of interstate traffic up and down the Atlantic Coast.
Conceptually speaking, there are two reasons for worsening congestion and traffic accidents on I-81: increased interstate traffic (mostly trucks) and increased local traffic. Local commuter traffic on the interstate hasn’t gotten as bad as in Northern Virginia because the metropolitan areas along the route — Winchester, Harrisonburg, Staunton, Roanoke, Blacksburg, Bristol — have experienced much slower rates of population and economic growth. But the dynamics are the same: New commercial and residential development clusters around the interchanges and people come to treat I-81 like a local transportation artery. Over time the Interstate clogs up, and commuters come to resent all those annoying tractor-trailers.
There is no way to solve the congestion problem on I-81 without solving the land use problem in each locality. Localities must stop treating the Interstate as a local transportation corridor. Instead of widening I-81 and paying premium prices to build at Interstate-grade standards, VDOT needs to build parallel transportation corridors designed for local use at lower travel speeds and lower construction costs. Furthermore, localities must eliminate zoning barriers to higher-density, mixed-use development supporting travel patterns of fewer, shorter trips.
As for some of the ideas contemplated in the VDOT study… Singling out heavy commercial vehicles for tolls may make political sense — out-of-state truckers don’t vote in Virginia — but it violates the purpose of the interstate to create connective tissue between states and metros. However, it would be appropriate to increase user fees on trucks so they pay their proportionate share that their super-heavy loads cause on the highway.
Tolls are a useful tool for funding transportation improvements and rationing scarce highway capacity. But they cannot do the job alone. All vehicles must pay their proportionate share of interstate maintenance and operations, and proper land use/transportation planning must provide commuters with viable options for local travel. Let’s hope that the authors of the I-81 study understand these principles better than those who wrote the legislation.