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Virginia advancing plan to build truck-only road

By Steven Ginsberg
Washington Post

FINCASTLE, Va. – Cars tiptoe around a seemingly endless volley of trucks all along Interstate 81, often finding themselves playing leapfrog with tractor-trailers for as long as they're on Virginia's 325-mile portion of the highway, one of the most beautiful and dangerous in the nation.

Now, after years of indecision about how to improve the safety and efficiency of this road, it may become the test case for an idea that could alter the scope of the nation's interstate highway system: State and federal leaders are charging forward with a plan to build a second four-lane road solely for trucks.

The proposal has galvanized residents, environmentalists and preservationists who are eager to maintain the appeal and historical significance of the Blue Ridge Mountain and Shenandoah Valley regions, state leaders eager to fix one of their biggest headaches and a powerful congressman from Alaska who is behind the plan to turn I-81 into a national model for a new system of interstates.

Those forces have converged in the mountains and valleys of western Virginia, where, all day and all night, the couriers of American commerce curl along I-81. Tractor-trailers dominate what has become known as the "NAFTA Highway" and move through like a rolling market of the nation's products and services – Bud Light, Serta, Flav-O-Rich, FedEx. More than a few of the rigs cough gray-black smoke into the air that colors the Blue Ridge.

What ultimately happens here will have profound implications for one of Virginia's most treasured landscapes, truck traffic in the Washington region and how goods are moved across the nation in the coming decades.

If a truck-only highway goes forward, it will mark a fundamental shift for an interstate system originally built to connect America to itself, not solely to facilitate the movement of goods.

"The emphasis for the last 50 years or so was to build a highway system to serve both autos and freight, and as you look out 50 years, those may not always be compatible," said Pierce R. Homer, Virginia's deputy transportation secretary and the head of a panel that picked the "truckway" solution for I-81. "It's no longer just a part of creating linkages among communities. It's about managing the movement of commodities in the 21st century. It's a very, very big deal."

The Virginia portion of I-81 is a roller coaster of a road that runs along the state's western spine from the mountainous southwest to the West Virginia border north of Winchester. The highway begins in central Tennessee and runs 824 miles to the Canadian border.

This is its appeal to freight haulers. It provides a straight, toll-free shot from the south through the mid-Atlantic and northeast. The interstate also bypasses the traffic of most major cities but runs close enough to them that truckers can take a quick turn onto other highways and motor directly to population centers.

The highway has become substantially busier since NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, went into effect in 1994 as more goods have been shipped on north-south routes between Mexico and Canada.

Traffic on I-81 doubled from 25,000 vehicles a day in 1990 to as many as 53,000 in 2002 and is expected to double again in the next 20 years. Up to 40 percent of that volume is trucks. Overall, that's not even a third of the traffic on Virginia's portion of Interstate 95, but the number of semis is roughly the same. And the number of fatal crashes, which transportation officials said is increased by the commingling of cars and trucks, was slightly greater on I-81. Drivers were 1.5 times as likely to die on that highway.

The new roadway that would address these issues would be built by a private consortium called Safer Transport and Roadways (STAR) Solutions, whose $6.4 billion plan calls for doubling I-81 within 15 years with a combination of federal, state and private funds and a proposal to charge tolls. STAR and state officials are negotiating the terms of a contract, and if an agreement can be reached, no other approvals are needed.

The plan for I-81, said U.S. Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), represents the future. The chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is seeking $1.6 billion over the next dozen years to back his vision of a national network of truck highways that will whip products across the United States at the speed required in a global economy.

"If we don't face the issue, we can't compete globally because we can't move trucks on time," Young said. "My big goal is to convince people that the best way to solve this problem is to have exclusive lanes for trucks so they can deliver their products on time. [Interstate 81] is close to the capital, so people could see, I think, that this is a great success and they would start demanding it in other parts of the nation."


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