Taking Another Look at Tolls on I-81

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.

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25 responses to “Taking Another Look at Tolls on I-81”

  1. They need to raise the diesel tax along the I-81 corridor to make improvements to the US-11, I-81 and NS crescent corridor. This will help shift long haul trucks and trains to cleaner technologies such as hydrogen fuel cells. I-81 in Virginia could be a hydrogen fuel cell test bed on the east coast for long haul trucks and trains.

    1. idiocracy Avatar

      I’m sure the trucking industry would love being taxed to make improvements for infrastructure only their competition (NS) is allowed to use.


  2. TBill Avatar

    One parameter I wish we would take a look at it, is how much tax/tolls Virginia gets from out-of-staters? Lots of states do that by tolls. But in Virginia we are opposed to that approach, so I suspect we do not spread out the tax base to visitors/passers-through as well as other states.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    Out of Staters – GLADLY pay tolls to be able to get around the mess in the Washington area. They’d be just as glad for I-81.

    In terms of localities co-opting the interstates – commuters in the Fredericksburg area claim that I-95 is there for their commutes and they resent others trying to use it to get around Washington!

    I-81 has /had a parallel road; It’s called Route 11 and it was there before I-81! It was the primary road through the Valley of Virginia before I-81!

    I’d LOVE to be able to use a lane with no trucks or local commuters! I’d pay money to do that and I bet I’m not alone!

    I don’t think we can stop the local co-opting of the interstates… it’s not a land-use issue per se… it’s just human nature to get on at one exit and off the next if it is quicker than talking a local road and I don’t think that THE problem on I-81… it needs to have 3 lanes and the 3rd lane off limits to trucks. They can do the same thing with I-81 that they have done with I-95… just give a dedicated lane to those willing to carpool or pay a toll and use the proceeds from the toll to pay for the the upgrades.

    Truckers won’t behave and commuters insist on driving solo – no matter how congested the road gets. The only solution is to offer relief to the victims via tolls.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    In some respects – it don’t really matter how efficient the big trucks are on I-81. Even if all of them were super-efficient – the basic problem would remain.

    There’s just too many trucks for the lanes and the terrain. Even truckers don’t want to get trapped behind other slow trucks and so they’ll pull out to pass – and it may take miles before they can overtake the other truck and by that time there is a long “train” of cars waiting in the left lane to pass.

    And that’s not a patient, benign line of cars… Some are more or less content to sit in line for miles while others are not and will try to pass on the right and cut back in front of cars that are not keeping up.

    In Washington State – I believe- if you have more than 5 cars lined up behind you – you must pull over.

    Truckers will not do that. Once they’re in the left lane – they’ll stay there for 5-10 miles if they have to… with no intention of pulling in behind the other truck they could not pass right away.

    It’s this scenario that leads to accidents. Frustrated people do impetuous and risky things – taking wild chances – after spending 10-15 minutes stuck behind a truck that cannot or will not generate enough speed to pass and there are cars that do that also… they set their cruise control at a certain speed and they sit in that lane – refusing to inch their speed up enough to get around the right lane and let others pass.

    It’s passive-aggressive behavior on steroids and others just want a way around it all.. and willing to pay a toll to get relief.

  5. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    TBill – past proposals have been to place the tolls near the state lines, WVA, NC (gotta add in I-77) and Tenn, so people who never left the state would not pay. I’m sure that idea will crop up again. I suspect the reasons for the past 30 years of inertia will also crop up again. What, you want ME to PAY?

    Raise the gas tax. We now have regional supplemental gas taxes in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, and the projects are starting to flow. An I-81 corridor gas tax should at least be part of the mix. It could actually be a narrow corridor along 81 and US 11 (dumping the Jeff Davis Highway name is one thing, but nobody is talking about Lee Highway!)

    1. TBill Avatar

      I agree with increased gaso taxes, especially in NoVA as we compete with higher priced border states, and I theorize the marketers tend to equalize pump prices around those areas. So I see pump price possibly never reflecting the tax increase.

      But still I am thinking the think tanks have a parameter about how effective states are sharing their tax burden with visitors…I’d like to see where we stand on that.

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    I think if you ban trucks from the passing lane – that would go a long way to calming things down. build a 3rd lane, toll it – and let people choose if they want to pay or not – just what they are doing now on I-95 between Fredericksburg and Washington.

    Use the money to further improve I-81… It was a mistake to let the localities along I-81 – stop – any real improvements .. it did not help them nor others…

    VDOT has changed since then – they are data driven and willing to do the hard choices to improve the transportation network.

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      A big problem on I-95 from Fredericksburg to Fairfax County is the trucks often driving in both the right and center lanes, slower drivers in the center lane and speeding drivers in the left lane. Building a tolled 3rd lane on I-81 might be useful.

  7. Acbar Avatar

    “It was a mistake to let the localities along I-81 – stop – any real improvements” — agreed! Stafford County is certainly an example of that. But improvements to parallel routes need to be done thoughtfully. Design them to serve the parallel communities and local commuters. And design them so they DO NOT bypass existing choke points or toll booths on the interstate. For example, put a toll on I-81’s through traffic crossing the James River at Buchanan and you will (1) inconvenience almost no commuters, and (2) collect a toll from essentially every through vehicle moving N-S the length of the Valley because the trip over to US 11 and across the River through Buchanan would be a trucker’s hell (and could easily be made even less attractive). And raise that gasoline tax — those commuters as well as the truckers are not paying their fair share.

  8. LarrytheG Avatar

    The chances of increasing the gas tax are somewhere between no way and hell no in both Congress and the GA.

    Tolls are becoming the preferred path to raise revenue for improvements.

    Not sure how Stafford has stopped improvements to I-95.

    The thing about widening interstates in urbanized areas is that every single bridge, overpass and interchange has to be re-built – and they just finished doing that to add the HOT lanes and that cost a billion dollars to do and that was cheap compared to buying more right-of-way. I just think they are done widening I-95 between Wash and Stafford… but they are going to extend the HOT lanes to Fredericksburg and built new C/D bridges over the Rappahannock.

    Both FHWA and VDOT say that local parallel roads are the responsibility of the Counties – i.e. to prioritize their allotted gas tax money for that purpose – and those commuters who go from Stafford to their jobs in NoVa – and live in subdivisions that line I-95 in Stafford -they don’t want parallel lanes…going through their subdivisions!

    For the reasons above – I see tolls as the only practical way to affect solo driving as well as give out of region travelers a way to get through the Washington DC area. There are no easy answers anymore.

    Same thing with I-81. more efficient trucks and higher gas tax won’t change the volume of trucks… I don’t even think tolls would as I-81 is the primary interstate route south west of I-95. Some trucks would start using Rt 29 to Lynchburg – and are now…

    But if you add a 3rd lane – and toll it… and keep trucks out of it – it will give regular travelers a way to transit I-81 without running into trucks or local traffic.

  9. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    I-81 is the only Interstate highway in the middle Atlantic states that effectively carries Interstate traffic, including long haul trucks, from the American Northeast and upper Midwest to our coastal and Appalachian south. This heavy Interstate traffic, including its truck traffic, greatly benefits most towns along I-81 in Virginia, such as Winchester, Harrisonburg and Roanoke. Thus I-81 should be improved and maintained to serve its primary mission – that of moving heavy north south interstate traffic.

    Ironically, this will greatly benefit local traffic in the Shenandoah Valley. It will force and divert local traffic onto local roads the parallel the I-81 right of way. This will require new and improved networks on local roads and uses of the land along those roads that are carefully, imaginatively, and comprehensively planned and executed along smart growth concepts that also preserve and enhance the natural beauty, historic character and rural nature of these unique places.

    Done the right way, instead of the easy and wrong way, this new road grid affords great opportunity for the Valley’s future, instead of ruining that future for an entire region as has been done in so many other places in Virginia before.

    The WRONG WAY to fix the problem is perfectly illustrated where I-81 traverses Harrisonburg, and in particular James Madison University. This thief of I-81 by local special interests is an abomination. If replicated, these abominations will ruin the Shenandoah Valley for everyone within 1000 miles in all directions.

  10. idiocracy Avatar

    Has the Great State of Virginia ever built a single mile of interstate highway that wasn’t funded by the Feds?

    It seems to me that the reason the parallel routes to the Interstate highways in this state are either poor or non-existent is because, in keeping with the Virginia tradition (the “Virginia way”) of sucking off the Federal teat, just let the Federally-funded Interstate do the job of the local roads we don’t want to build or improve.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Yes, Idiocracy, there was a time when Virginia (and Virginians) built and maintained all of their own roads. That was before the late 1950s.

      So back then in the 1950s, and before the 1950s there were lots of local and state people who were competent people, people who were responsible, peopled who were accountable, people who you could rely on, folks who could take care of themselves, their families, and their own communities.

      Now these folks are mostly gone, and those people who are alive today in those very same places are typically incompetent, and lazy, waste their money on foolish things, and the kind of folks who otherwise sit on their collective asses, waiting on the Federal Government to feed them and otherwise to take care of them.

  11. LarrytheG Avatar

    Localities do get their share of allocations for transportation but they choose to not build parallel roads or in a lot of cases – to not improve the existing routes. It’s cheaper to let folks use the interstates.

    But I don’t think that is the bigger problem along most of I-81. There some places where it might be but they could be fairly easily fixed with C/D lanes.

    The bigger problem is the trucks occupying all the lanes.

    Even if you added a “free” third lane – with no rules -the truckers would use all 3 lanes.

    In a lot of other interstates, the trucks are restricted to lanes and at least one free lane is for the cars.

    You do something like that on I-81 – and the problem will largely be resolved. There are always some passenger a-holes who will sit in left lane and block others… but that’s an easier problem to solve that the trucks in those lanes.

    1. idiocracy Avatar

      I believe that Bob Marshall was responsible for this law.

      As stated in the Code of Virginia:

      § 46.2-803.1. Commercial motor vehicles limited to use of certain lanes of certain interstate highways.
      Except where the posted speed limit is less than 65 miles per hour, no person shall drive any commercial motor vehicle, as defined in § 46.2-341.4, on the left-most lane of any interstate highway having more than two lanes in each direction.

      Furthermore, within the Eighth Planning District and on Interstate Route 81, no person shall drive any commercial motor vehicle, as defined in § 46.2-341.4, on the left-most lane of any interstate highway having more than two lanes in each direction, regardless of the posted speed limit. Every commercial motor vehicle shall keep to the right-most lane when operating at a speed of 15 miles per hour or more below the posted speed limit on an interstate highway with no more than two lanes in each direction.

      The provisions of this section shall not apply to (i) buses or school buses or (ii) other commercial vehicles when (a) preparing to exit a highway via a left exit or (b) being used to perform maintenance or construction work on an interstate highway.

      1997, c. 733; 1998, c. 555; 2000, cc. 60, 306, 407; 2004, c. 809.

      1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        It looks like we got more laws and regulations than we’ll ever need. Never does there seem to be any shortage of lawyers ,and their busy work done for big money, in the Commonwealth. So we got that covered, it looks like.

        Maybe now, we can start thinking ’bout paying Virginia State troopers a living wage so they can support a family, their own, and also one that allows them to do their job, a real job, cleaning up the acts of these long haul truckers on I-81, so the roads are safe instead of killing people.

        Think of it – Virginia State Police allowed to do real work that achieves real results in return for decent pay that supports them and their family!

  12. djrippert Avatar

    C’mon Jim … it was you and your ilk in Richmond who came up with Virginia’s First Law of Tolling – “Only NoVa will ever pay any tolls above a de-minimis cost.” Until NoVa expands out to Rt 81 there won’t be any tolls on that road. But once NoVa does creep out there … maybe $30 – $50 per trip will be reasonable.

  13. djrippert Avatar

    J-Dude, you are funny …

    Let’s see, the population of the Washington Metropolitan area is 6,131,977 (per the census). The population of the Richmond Metropolitan area is 1,260,029 (also per the census). So, Washington is 4.9 times more populous that Richmond.

    The “Beltway” around Richmond (Rt 295 maybe?) is four lanes in each direction. Using population as a guide, the Washington Beltway should be just over 19 lanes in each direction.

    Gosh, I wonder why the piggies at the state tough in Richmond don’t have a traffic congestion problem with their beltway?

    1. Point of fact: The “beltway” around northern Richmond, Interstate 295, is two lanes each direction.

      1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        What worries me still and greatly is the heavy cruisin’ of local Dudes and Gals going on round the McDonald’s and Denny’s circuit off Rt. 11 just off the I-81 interchange in Strasburg, Virginia, on Friday’s and Saturday nights.

        This courtin’ Shenandoah Valley Virginia style needs get itself back into the local church socials.

      2. djrippert Avatar

        You sure you want to stand by that “2 lanes” point, Jim? I just looked at the highway on Google Maps and it sure as hell looks like four lanes each way to me …

        1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
          Reed Fawell 3rd

          I’ve recently come to worry that Old Jim nowadays is typically out to lunch as to what’s happening around him on a daily basis. This Google map shot now deepens my ongoing concern. Steve may soon have to take over supervision of the blog.

        2. Haha! You got me there. The stretch of highway that I use has only three lanes each way… (I checked)…. but, still, that’s three lanes, not two. So, you got me.

          1. djrippert Avatar

            NoVa’s eyes in the sky are watching you Richmond elites. Your ability to consume vastly disproportionate amounts of the state’s wealth and then deny it is being curtailed.

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