News and Views

The News & Advance : Interstate 81 Affects Our Region, Too

The News & Advance

Interstate 81 is the commercial workhorse of interstate highways in the Mid-Atlantic region, carrying some of the heaviest truck traffic of any of the interstates in this part of the country.

The longest stretch of the 855-mile-long highway is in Virginia, spanning 325 miles from Bristol to Winchester in the Shenandoah Valley. The interstate begins near Dandridge, Tenn., and ends in upstate New York near Wellesley Hills, close to the border with Canada.

It’s also an interstate that drivers fear to venture onto. Often multiple times each week, radio and television news reports warn drivers of accidents, some blocking traffic for miles. Just last week, an accident in Montgomery County resulted in a 14-mile backup. Fourteen miles ... that’s not a typo.

For the most part, I-81 in Virginia is two lanes in each direction, essentially what was planned in 1958 and constructed until the early 1970s with a few modifications since.

In the four decades since, vehicular traffic — both automobiles and tractor-trailers — has increased exponentially, and the state is struggling to keep up with routine maintenance, much less upgrades to the interstate itself.

According to the Virginia Department of Transportation, this one highway carries 42 percent of all statewide truck traffic, with trucks comprising 20 percent to 30 percent of traffic volume on some stretches. Those trucks put 1.2 billion vehicular miles on the road each year, again 42 percent of Virginia’s total. And the annual value of the freight carried on I-81? More than $312 billion, or 47 percent of the state’s total for all highways.

And accidents on the interstate have been increasing at an alarming rate since 2013, according to VDOT statistics. The Salem Transportation District, for example, includes the portion of the highway just over the mountains from Lynchburg and Central Virginia. In fiscal year 2013, there were 548 accidents on the northern and southern stretches of interstate, a figure that quickly rose to 686 in fiscal year 2016, with only a slight drop to 663 in 2017.

The General Assembly knows I-81 is a dangerous highway and has directed VDOT to devise an upgrade plan for Virginia’s stretch. That plan includes widening the entire 325 miles to a minimum of three lanes in each direction, with some cost estimates reaching $3 billion. Tolling of non-passenger vehicles — i.e., tractor-trailers — is a key component of the plan.

As the state pushes ahead with its I-81 planning, with a final report due to the General Assembly this autumn, we urge VDOT to realize the impact of any actions, especially tolling, on Central Virginia. Inevitably, there will be some truckers reluctant to fork over hefty tolls, even to travel on a safer road; during the construction phase, whenever that begins, truckers will be seeking alternate routes to avoid the congestion.

And what alternate route might they turn to? The next-busiest north/south highway in the western half of Virginia: U.S. 29. We hope VDOT planners are modeling how years of construction, as well as possible truck tolling, would affect our region’s most important corridor. And we would remind them I-81 is vitally important to the state economy, as is U.S. 29.

Read the full article and more in The News & Advance

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