By Steven Ginsberg
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
"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
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
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."