Virginia’s Flawed Plan for I-81 Modernization

Late to the party to rebuild and modernize its Interstates, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) has developed a toll-based plan to improve I-81, a major north-south truck route. Understandably, the state wants to lay out a vision that can be implemented in the near future. But this plan is more of a band-aid than an actual solution.
The plan would make a number of small changes to I-81. It widens small sections of the highway from 4 to 6 lanes around Christiansburg, Roanoke, Lexington, Staunton, and Harrisonburg. It adds truck climbing lanes in a few sections and straightens curves in others. It adds intelligent transportation systems (ITS) to help with non-recurrent delays such as accidents. Yet the sum of improvements is underwhelming, considering the $2 billion cost.
VDOT officials argue that the most acute problems on the highway are incident-related. In a presentation, VDOT explained that the majority of delay on most Virginia Interstates, 72 percent, is due to congestion (recurring delay). In contrast, on I-81 a slight majority of delay, 51 percent, is due to incidents (non-recurring delay). As a result, the plan improves the sections of I-81 with the most crashes. The focus on incidents is leading VDOT to devote resources to ITS features. Travel crashes cause major delays not to mention pain and suffering. ITS features are a cost-effective way to improve the roadway.
But the targeted improvements the plan makes don’t solve the underlying problem. I-81 is more than 40 years old in most sections and close to 50 in others. The roadbed is wearing out and costs of maintaining the road will grow annually. I-81 was built for a planned average annual daily traffic of 25,000 vehicles. Today’s traffic volumes range from 45,000-60,000. I-81 was built for an annual truck share of 10 percent; today trucks can make up 50 percent or more of the vehicles on the road. The use of both passenger vehicles and trucks is forecast to grow significantly, with truck traffic more than doubling in the next 30 years. Clearly, I-81 was not built for the volume of traffic and the type of vehicles that use the roadway today, not to mention the future. The entire highway needs to be replaced and widened. That includes rebuilding the structure from the roadbed up, widening the facility to 6-8 lanes, extending acceleration and deceleration lanes, and adding truck climbing lanes.
Looking at Virginia’s peer states, Georgia and North Carolina, shows how VDOT’s plan is misguided. All three states have similar populations and geography. Politically, all are purple states nearly evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. Georgia and North Carolina have both worked to rebuild and widen their Interstate highways with daily traffic over 40,000 to six or eight lanes depending on the section. This rebuilding has replaced the underlying roadbed, straightened curves, extended merge lanes and widened the highway. Georgia has rebuilt and widened all of I-75 (except a small section around Macon) and I-95 to at least six lanes, and is in the process of rebuilding and widening I-85. North Carolina is completing the final link in rebuilding and widening I-85 to six-to-eight lanes between Charlotte and the Raleigh-Durham area. The state has plans to rebuild and widen I-95 to 6-8 lanes but a backlash over tolling has delayed that project.
By contrast, Virginia’s plan is a piecemeal approach. We don’t use a piecemeal approach in other areas of society. Imagine the road is a broken arm. Yet because it costs more money and more time to actually fix a broken arm, the doctor merely stabilizes the arm in a sling instead of setting the bone. Is that how anybody fixes a broken arm?
The piecemeal approach creates new capacity problems. Unlike in northern Virginia in which widening eastbound I-66 between SR 267 and Fairfax Drive targets the biggest chokepoint on the highway, I-81’s proposed widenings solve just four out of 20 chokepoints. These widenings aren’t going to reduce congestion; they are going to move it from one place to another.
The proposed implementation of tolling is problematic as well. The six toll gantries will be mounted 55 miles apart from each other, allowing knowledgeable travelers to divert onto US 11 or other local roads to bypass the tolls. Trucks must pay for every trip, but cars are allowed to buy a $25 annual pass. Consider that in northern Virginia it costs $3.50 to travel 15 miles on the Dulles Toll Road, which equates to 23 cents per mile. Yet a toll of $25 for the entire 325-mile I-81 equates to less than 8 cents a mile for just one trip in one direction. Many residents in the corridor commute 25 miles per workday each direction on I-81. Assuming 250 work days, those commuters will pay a toll rate of 0.2 cents per mile (2/10 of a cent per mile). Most trials of per-mile user fees find 1.5 to 2.0 cents per mile to be a fair charge. Yet “frequent users” could pay only 10 percent of that fair price. This toll rate is far too low; a more realistic rate would allow more improvements to be paid for.
VDOT conducted similar visioning exercises for I-81 in the past and came up with better long-range solutions. The best approach would be to modify the 2003 STAR Solutions public-private partnership (P3) proposal to widen the roadway to eight lanes. Two lanes in each direction would be truck-only, preparing for a future in which more than half the traffic is expected to be trucks. The other two lanes would be reserved for cars. The original plan tolled trucks only. For equity reasons and to raise sufficient revenue, the revised plan should toll both cars and trucks. This approach also shows the advantage provided by a P3: innovation of the truck toll lanes and lower overall project costs. Recall the I-495 express toll lanes were built for 25 percent less than VDOT’s project estimate. Imagine how many more miles of I-81 could be improved if costs were reduced by 25 percent.
If VDOT’s current plan is rejected, the minimum acceptable solution would rebuild and widen the roadway to 6 lanes with additional truck climbing lanes where necessary. To stretch resources, the plan could delay improving the section between Abingdon and Wytheville, as that section does not have current capacity problems (although it does have geometric design shortcomings). The bottom line is that all of I-81 needs to be modernized and this VDOT plan is simply not good enough.
(This article first ran in the December 2018 issue of Surface Transportation Innovation.)
Baruch Feigenbaum
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