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Virginia Association of Railway Patrons
Modern Transportation for the Virginias

Let Modern Intermodal Trains Remove Truck Traffic from I-81

From VARP’s On Track newsletter, summer 2006

By Dick Peacock, VARP board member and secretary

This commentary previously appeared in the Manassas Journal Messenger.

Route Interstate 81, starting at Knoxville, TN, and passing through Virginia between Bristol and Winchester, suffers from extreme truck congestion. Truckers call it the NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) highway because so many items produced in Mexico or the Southwest are transported by truck onto Interstate highways that funnel their loads onto I-81 at Knoxville. These rigs continue their journey on this road through Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland to Harrisburg, PA, and points farther north. This mass of truck traffic has created many fatal accidents. Projections show that this congestion will increase.

The Commonwealth of Virginia must decide between diverging paths for addressing corridor capacity and safety needs. The road construction industry promotes a massive new level of road widening, funded by tolls. The STAR Solutions consortium, led by Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root Corporation, wants to implement this approach. Many grassroots citizen organizations and most local officials favor a multistate multimodal transportation system that diverts the majority of long-distance trucks onto high-performance intermodal trains that mimic highway levels of service. The multimodal approach would make local capacity and safety improvements to I-81 while modernizing existing rail lines into a double-track steel Interstate. Trucks would roll onto special rail cars for trips between Knoxville and Harrisburg. Trucks would be offloaded at these end points and continue to their destinations.

Norfolk Southern owns the rail line that parallels I-81. This railroad would enter a public-private partnership to upgrade the line as funding sources are identified. Some money could be borrowed from the Federal Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing program, to be paid back by surcharges on the new intermodal freight that passes through Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.

The multimodal alternative has compelling advantages: It would cost one-third less than the road-only plan, it would take fewer years to build, I-81 would remain toll free, rail transportation moves freight for one-third the energy and produces only one-fifth the pollution of trucks, it would reduce our dependence on foreign oil, it requires far less additional land to build, rail transportation has a far better safety record, and the rail solution could divert up to 60% of the through trucks off I-81 with capacity to spare.

Can we trust Norfolk Southern to do it right? Will we merely exchange truck accidents for rail accidents? For almost 14 years, NS has partnered with Virginia and Amtrak to provide commuter rail services from Manassas Airport to Alexandria, VA. During that time there has never been a serious injury or fatality to a passenger or any major derailment. On-time performance has been outstanding as well. This Class 1 railroad has an outstanding safety record. It has won the Harriman safety award 16 years in a row, from 1989 to 2004. In Trains magazine, Don Phillips, internationally known transportation reporter, named Norfolk Southern the best-run railroad for 2005.

Let’s invest in a steel Interstate for the I-81 corridor, one that can be a model for our nation.