Virginia Transportation Board Endorses I-81 Improvement Study

Mon November 06, 2006 - National Edition
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An Interstate 81 Freight Rail Study, a variety of short-term safety improvements along existing I-81, and the completion of the I-81 Corridor Improvement Study all got the green light from the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) Oct. 11.

“Today’s action by the Commonwealth Transportation Board shows our commitment to a comprehensive, multimodal strategy for transportation,” said Pierce Homer, Virginia’s secretary of transportation and chairman of the CTB. “Road and rail improvements are essential in the I-81 corridor, and we also recognize the critical links both provide to our ports.”

Short-Term Improvements

The board also said that there is an immediate need for safety and operational improvements along I-81, apart from possible long-term expansion. The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) will pursue a program of short-term safety improvements to include building dedicated truck climbing lanes and extending on- and off-ramps at interchanges, among others. Improvements will be prioritized based on demonstrated safety needs. Many of these improvements could be designed quickly with some construction under way within two years.

“Truck climbing lanes and ramp extensions alone will cost more than $400 million, and we don’t have that kind of money today,” said Commonwealth Transportation Commissioner David Ekern. “But we will maximize available funds and put as many of these improvements on pavement as possible.”

Freight Rail

In a resolution, board members directed the Department of Rail and Public Transportation to conduct an I-81 Freight Rail Study as soon as possible. This study will identify high impact, short-term rail improvements in the corridor and identify various scenarios of truck traffic diversion to rail. In cooperation with other states, the study will examine at least 500 mi. of the I-81 corridor in order to improve freight movement throughout the corridor. Based on study results, Virginia will be prepared to identify specific rail improvement projects as early as next year.

“We fully believe that we must enhance rail service in the I-81 corridor,” said Matthew Tucker, director of Virginia’s Department of Rail and Public Transportation. “We welcome the opportunity to engage in this study with our private partner, and we intend to move quickly toward rail improvements to relieve some of the stress on I-81.”

Future Needs

In addressing future needs, the CTB considered substantial public involvement and findings of the I-81 Corridor Improvement Study (Tier 1 Draft Environmental Impact Statement). The study shows that 37 percent of I-81 needs one additional lane in each direction, while the remainder may need up to two additional lanes in each direction to handle future traffic. The board directed VDOT to finalize the study with a widening concept that would build not more than one or two general purpose lanes only where needed in each direction. The board also resolved that future improvements will reflect a context sensitive design, so that the improvements take into account the surrounding environment and future land-use planning.

Estimates of future traffic volume do not support building two additional lanes in each direction for use only by trucks. Such a design would provide too much capacity for trucks and not enough for cars, according to the study.

In addition, the study shows that if I-81 were tolled, the amount of traffic that would divert to other roads is fairly low. Therefore, tolling will be considered alongside other sources of long-term funding, and VDOT will continue its I-81 tolling application under federal law.

“It’s very clear that more lanes will be needed on I-81,” said Ekern. “Virginia is an attractive state, and many people want to be here. We must be wise in planning to accommodate them, and it’s absolutely appropriate to complete this long-term planning study so that we will be ready to move forward with selective widening on an as-needed basis and as funds become available.”

The next step in the study process is for VDOT to finalize the Tier 1 Environmental Impact Statement and send it to the Federal Highway Administration for approval. Upon FHWA approval — called a record of decision —VDOT can begin work on more site-specific Tier 2 analyses of the selected improvement concepts.

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