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Board Considers Proposals to Improve Interstate 81, Rails

Mon October 09, 2006 - National Edition
CEG



Rail improvements, truck climbing lanes, longer on- and off-ramps at interchanges and greater use of technology to manage traffic are part of a comprehensive Interstate 81 improvement strategy now under consideration by the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB).

Members of the CTB heard presentations on the I-81 Corridor Improvement Study, planned safety and operational improvements and the I-81 Freight Rail Study during the Sept. 21 CTB meeting at the Virginia Port Authority in Norfolk.

Results from the I-81 Tier 1 Draft Environmental Impact Statement and significant public involvement activities indicate that future traffic estimates for numbers of cars and trucks on I-81 do not support building a separate roadway for trucks along the entire length of the corridor. However, nearly all of the I-81 corridor will need additional capacity by 2035.

“We are committed to a balanced approach for improving I-81. A comprehensive strategy must prioritize safety improvements and include enhanced freight rail service,” said Gov. Timothy M. Kaine.

Planning studies indicate that adding a varying number of general purpose lanes most effectively addresses highway capacity issues. Current and future traffic demand shows the need for selective lane-widening that varies from one to two lanes. Studies show that 37 percent of the 325-mi. corridor needs one additional lane, while the remainder may need up to two additional lanes to handle anticipated traffic demand.

“A border-to-border, one-size-fits-all answer is not the solution for I-81,” said Pierce Homer, Virginia’s secretary of transportation and chairman of the CTB. “It’s appropriate for us to have both long- and short-term strategies to address conditions on I-81. Rail is part of the solution. An on-going program of safety improvements is part of the solution. Long-term highway improvements also are needed.”

Freight Rail Improvements

The I-81 Freight Rail Study will outline a strategic approach to maximizing the capacity of freight rail in the corridor. The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, in coordination with the Multimodal Planning Office, will conduct the study. Key components include establishing potential scenarios of freight traffic diversion to rail, identifying which rail improvements will provide the most public benefit, and consulting with other states along I-81 to improve freight rail transportation throughout the corridor. The study will begin this fall, with completion in summer 2007.

This study and subsequent improvement efforts will broaden Virginia’s cooperation with private rail industry. Norfolk Southern is contributing consultant and staff support as part of a public-private partnership. State funding is being provided through statewide planning funds, and all study results will be independently validated by the commonwealth. Once the I-81 Freight Rail Study is completed, Virginia will be positioned to advance high-impact rail improvement projects in the I-81 corridor as early as next year.

Short-Term Improvements

While long-term solutions for capacity issues on I-81 are being studied, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) briefed the CTB regarding short-term projects that can ease congestion and how the agency will use technology to reduce congestion and improve safety.

VDOT plans to use federal earmarks to build truck climbing lanes in selected locations. These dedicated lanes allow slower-traveling heavy trucks to move out of mainline traffic flow on steep inclines. Current federal transportation legislation (SAFETEA-LU) includes $100 million to be used on I-81 for building dedicated truck lanes.

In addition, a program of spot improvements will be under design as soon as possible with some construction under way within two years. These projects would address existing safety and operational problems in many locations. Examples include extending acceleration and deceleration lanes at several interchanges and installing guardrail along the inside lane of narrow medians to prevent vehicles from veering across the median into oncoming traffic.

VDOT also will use technology to improve incident response, reduce congestion and enhance safety. Such operational improvements focus on maximizing the flow of traffic on the existing road network — without building additional lanes. Examples include adding cameras and variable message signs to provide real-time travel information directly to drivers, increasing Safety Service Patrol coverage and hours of operation, and enhancing traveler information services such as 511 Virginia.

CTB members will consider these I-81 proposals in coming weeks and are expected to take possible action at the board’s Oct. 11 meeting.