The American Automobile Association has called it one of the nation’s most scenic stretches of interstate. As it winds through the rolling farmland of the Shenandoah Valley and around the mountain ridges of southwest Virginia, Interstate 81 allows tourists in the Old Dominion a rare treat — the opportunity to enjoy breathtaking scenery at 65 miles per hour.
But because the interstate, which has 325 miles in Virginia, has also become a major north-south trucking route, the mix of freight traffic and tourists on a four-lane highway that climbs up and down mountains has become increasingly more dangerous. “I wouldn’t say it’s an unsafe road,” says Laura Bullock, the public relations manager for the Salem District of the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), “but it has some very individual characteristics that separate it from other interstates.”
Among those characteristics is the up and down terrain that requires trucks to take up more space than they would on a flat interstate. “A truck on 81,” says Bullock, “is equal to four to six cars.” She says the right lane on I-81, if all its daily vehicular traffic were lined up end to end, is already full. “If you’ve only got one lane for maneuvering,” she explains, “that’s unsafe. There’s not much room for error.”
As a result, VDOT is considering expanding the interstate, possibly widening it to six, perhaps even eight, lanes. The proposition has environmentalists hopping.
Trip Pollard with the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) in Charlottesville, Virginia, says he is concerned that a massive expansion of I-81 could negatively impact air and water quality, increase truck traffic even further, and disrupt both the scenery that draws tourists up and down I-81 and the quality of life in communities along the interstate.
“You’ve already got areas in and around the Shenandoah Valley,” he says, “that don’t meet air quality standards. Exacerbating that concern is that you’re looking at truck numbers tripling to perhaps 25,000 trips per day by 2021.”
“Expanding 81,” he adds, “will also impact quality of life in terms of noise and pollution.” Pollard also points out that the I-81 corridor is home to a number of historic communities and resources, including seven nationally significant Civil War battlefields.
Bullock says these concerns are premature. “No decision has been made about what I-81 will look like,” she points out, noting that the proposed expansion of the interstate has to undergo an extensive federally mandated environmental review that could take several years. She expects the review to be fully underway by January.
The review will note all historically significant sites along I-81 as well as endangered species that could be impacted. It will also study the potential impact on communities that are close to the interstate. “We’re working really closely with the Federal Highway Administration,” Bullock explains. “If we are really careful with our work, we hope to get some pieces of the interstate started within five years.”
Pollard says he is most concerned about VDOT applying a one-size-fits-all standard to the entire interstate. Two builder consortiums, Star Solutions and Fluor Virginia, have proposed significant expansions of the interstate; both proposals call for widening I-81 to six or eight lanes and adding toll booths, certainly for trucks and quite possibly for all vehicular traffic.
“Targeted road improvements are needed in some spots,” says Pollard. “Other parts are not as big a problem.”
Bullock agrees, noting that the interstate’s most congested areas are in the Roanoke/Christiansburg area, Winchester, Harrisonburg, and the I-77 interchange in Wythe County. All four areas see a huge mix of tourist and truck traffic in addition to daily commuter traffic. VDOT has tried to alleviate the congestion problem around Christiansburg by adding collector distributor roads that funnel traffic off the interstate and allow drivers to ride parallel to the interstate while choosing from among two to three exits.
I-81 around Bristol, Virginia, is already six-lane. With no grassy median and occasional sound barrier walls, Bristol is the kind of I-81 image many don’t want replicated along the rest of 81.
Expansion and tourism
Pollard fears that turning I-81 into a mass of six or eight lane concrete will hurt Virginia’s tourism. “The lack of aesthetics, the noise, the traffic volume—all are likely to hurt the tourism industry,” he says.
Executive Director of the Virginia Tourism Corporation Martha Steger declined to comment on how the proposed expansion of I-81 could impact tourism in Virginia. “We cannot give any kind of educated impact state at this time,” she said, noting that no environmental review has yet been performed.
Bullock says VDOT understands concerns about preserving I-81’s scenic nature. “We’re very proud of the AAA scenic designation,” she notes, “and we want to maintain as much as we can the scenic look of the interstate.”
Maintaining the interstate’s scenery, however, will impact how any expansion project is undertaken. Bullock says that if VDOT wants to maintain I-81’s wide grassy median that will mean pushing the road out into the surrounding countryside. To avoid taking away from the landscape that currently borders the interstate, VDOT would have to surrender the grassy median that adds so much to the highway’s gentle scenery.
“These are all things that will have to be evaluated under the environmental review,” Bullock explains, noting that she doesn’t even know yet if the whole interstate will undergo expansion. She says both the Star and Fluor proposals were unsought and were brought to VDOT under Virginia purchasing laws that allow private companies to offer state agencies a product that they feel would be beneficial at any time without solicitation. Bullock says VDOT has written its own proposal for I-81 expansion and that both Star and Fluor bid on it.
“It could be,” she says, “that Star and Fluor are two of the options we evaluate.” But right now, despite all the media attention the companies’ two proposals have received, VDOT has not settled on any specific plan for the interstate.
Keep on Truckin’?
Pollard still feels VDOT has more homework to do. “A much closer look needs to be taken as to what exactly the problems on the interstate are,” he says. “The number of cars I-81 was built to accommodate—they’re still within that range. It’s the trucks that have created the problem.”
Pollard feels rail should be part of the solution. Currently Norfolk Southern Railway has a line that runs virtually parallel to I-81. Pollard says that rail expansion could be part of the solution for relieving congestion on the interstate, though he is quick to note that the government historically provides funding to highways and not to rail projects. “Norfolk Southern doesn’t have the funds to expand on its own,” he says.
Norfolk Southern representatives could not be reached for comment.
Pollard points out that 30 localities along the interstate have passed resolutions asking that rail be considered as an alternative or part of the solution to I-81
expansion. “We don’t have a good track record over the last 50 years,” he notes, “of looking at anything besides roads to address transportation problems. This is a typical response,” he says, “to throw billions of dollars at roads.”
Pollard would like to see I-81 set an example as a transportation corridor solving congestion through rail and highway solutions.
“Rail is being evaluated,” says Bullock, “as part of both the Star and Fluor solutions.” However, Bullock is not convinced that rail expansion would be a viable alternative to the expansion of I-81. “The highways are paid for by the government,” she points out. “The railroads are private.”
“If rail were an economic alternative for freight traffic,” Bullock adds, “the trucking companies would be using it.” She says that companies would have to be forced to use rail for shipping goods, and that could only be done through legislation. “81 is not so simple that you can say rail is the answer.”
There aren’t likely to be any immediate changes to I-81, save for some work on dangerous bridges. The environmental review will take several years, and even then,
Bullock says, improvements to the interstate will be completed in sections. For now, she hopes VDOT can come up with a model of what it wants I-81 to look like. She says she has no idea at this point what it would cost to expand the highway, whether its entirety is expanded to six or eight lanes or just its more congested areas.
Typically, interstate construction and improvements are shared by the federal and state governments, with the federal government assuming 80% of the burden, Bullock says. Based on Star Solution’s proposal, expansion of I-81 could cost upwards of $8 billion.
Pollard calls that “an incredibly costly approach” and says he feels there are better alternatives to making I-81 a mega-interstate.
The real cost, however, will most likely be measured in the environmental and scenic impact I-81’s expansion has on the communities through which it passes. “We have to be very careful,” says Pollard, “that we don’t rush to embrace this project without thorough analysis of impacts and alternatives.”