News and Views

VBT May Newsletter : Interstate 81: A 60-Year Concern

The Interstate 81 corridor covers an expansive 325 miles across Virginia, making it the longest interstate highway within the borders of our state. Not only do thousands of our neighbors travel I-81 as a part of daily life, but the highway has consistently been a major economic driver for the Commonwealth. By 2040, it is projected that nearly 20 million truck trips on I-81 will transport three-quarters of a trillion dollars’ worth of goods, every year. The revenue potential of the interstate despite its rural geography make I-81 a vital, yet crucially overlooked artery to the heart of Virginia. 

Sixty years ago, in 1958, the design plans for Interstate 81 were set in motion, and the final stretches south of Roanoke were open to Virginians a little over a decade later by 1971. Fast forward to the present—the realities of current shipping and commerce needs are in considerable contrast to the plans for the interstate all those years ago. I-81 was originally designed to accommodate a mere one-third of the current volume of passenger vehicles traveling I-81 daily. Moreover, the 28% of current travel volume made up of freight trucks is nearly double the original capacity the highway was designed to support.

Times have changed – so why hasn’t I-81?

The largely two-lane road is the site of over 2,000 crashes per year due to capacity overreach and terrain hazards. And with an average of 30 of those crashes each year taking longer than six hours to clear from the roadway, I-81 has become an unreliable and delay-filled means of transportation of freight. 

An article from the Washington Post, dated nearly 10 years ago showed that our area has long been concerned about 81. The article, titled “On accident-plagued Interstate 81 in Va., fear becomes a traveling companion,” explores the fears of several locals living along the corridor, citing concerns of accidents and fatalities at the hands of large trucks. Heavy traffic volumes far exceeding the original capacity of the highway, paired with barreling speeds from both trucks and passenger vehicles with seemingly little police enforcement contributed to the staggering crash and fatality rate. To this day, the established problem continues and will until it is addressed.

How long must this problem continue before our elected officials support a fix? 

Insufficient funding—and misappropriation of funds by lawmakers due to the absence of legislation preventing it—has blocked the updates and fixes the citizens and drivers along the corridor deserve. While no long-term funding is currently in place to finance the more than $2 billion crucially needed to update the interstate, the Virginia Department of Transportation is currently researching the needs in the corridor and identifying projects that could move ahead if funding is provided. 

As we look to the 2019 General Assembly session, we need lawmakers to see that finally, it’s time to fix I-81.

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