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Modern Transportation for the Virginias

Coalition Seeks Rail Inclusion for I-81 Corridor Plans

From VARP’s On Track newsletter, summer 2003.

Two bidders have submitted formal plans to widen Interstate 81 through Virginia in response to VDOT’s Public-Private Transportation Act (PPTA) request for proposals. A coalition has emerged to encourage a vibrant rail component for I-81’s congestion solution.

In January 2003, a second consortium, organized as Fluor Virginia, submitted a PPTA bid to VDOT to widen I-81. Fluor Virginia proposes adding a third lane for cars only, additional climbing lanes for trucks on long grades, and tolls on all vehicles. As its multimodal component, Fluor Virginia would help finance the $200 million rail upgrade on Norfolk Southern’s “B-line” between Front Royal and Manassas, Virginia, which would enable an additional 500,000 trucks annually to be diverted to trains between Harrisburg, PA, and Atlanta, GA.

During fall 2002, environmental activists throughout Virginia’s I-81 corridor organized to encourage editorials and local resolutions in support of a strong rail component for the I-81 corridor upgrade. By March 2003, the coalition had adopted the name RAIL Solution and was pulling in more members and results.

RAIL Solution concluded that the multimodal components of both STAR Solutions’ and Fluor Virginia’s plans would give the rail mode a subservient role. The STAR Solutions plan would actually forbid Virginia to develop alternatives that would divert more than 15% of traffic from its 4-lane truck tollway. The emphasis on adding highway capacity would ensure more environmental degradation to the Great Valley of Virginia. Winchester is already noncompliant for the Clean Air Act, and the Roanoke Valley is borderline noncompliant.

Don Young (R-AK), Chairman of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, interviewed for the May 5 Roll Call, called for “one pilot project” in the 2003 reauthorization of the Transportation Equity Act (TEA-21) “where we have exclusive right-of-ways for trucks but it has to be a toll road to help pay for it.” Young proposed that this truck tollway be built “in Virginia. It’s close enough to where the rest of my Congressional friends can see it. And once they see it then they will be mandated across this country.” An $800-million earmark has been pledged for the pilot project.

The design elements in the current proposals being considered by Virginia set the stage for Interstate 81 to become Don Young’s pilot project for a new tier of national highway infrastructure designed specifically for longer combination vehicles or “truck trains.”

RAIL Solution has launched a public outreach campaign in addition to soliciting pro-rail resolutions.

Two successful RAIL Solution presentations were given in the Roanoke Valley on May 12 and 13, 2003. The Gainsboro Neighborhood Alliance hosted a panel presentation for Roanoke City officials on May 12. Senator John Edwards, Virginia Rail Policy Institute Interim Director Dick Beadles, and VARP President Michael Testerman each covered aspects of “Developing a Greater Role for Rail in the I-81 Corridor.” Beadles and Testerman gave the same presentation to Salem and Roanoke County politicians on May 13.

Bristol, Marion, Wytheville, Blacksburg and Roanoke, and Warren County have passed pro-rail resolutions. The resolutions ask Governor Warner and VDOT Commissioner Shucet to develop and promote “rail freight and passenger service in the I-81 corridor to complement limited highway-widening and to move a large volume of the long-distance freight traffic from trucks on I-81 to freight trains.” Greater reliance on rail could avoid the need to impose tolls on I-81.

Specific rail design suggestions have not been offered in the resolutions, but RAIL Solution has produced educational materials to review the current rail development options and offered an optimum proposal. Before the resolution campaign began, most local officials believed that the truck-diversion potential of the railroad was only 10% to 20%—less than one million trucks per year—as identified in the Senate Joint Resolution (SJR) 55 Study. The SJR 55 finding did not inspire confidence that rail could make much of an impact along I-81.

Recent proposals have described rail designs that would allow intermodal trains to divert at least 3 million trucks annually. I-81 is handling between 3 million and 5 million trucks annually.

A white paper issued by Rail Solution on May 9 described the current rail proposals.

Former Norfolk Southern economist David Foster has proposed completely double-tracking the parallel rail line between Harrisburg, Pa., and Knoxville, Tenn. Norfolk Southern originally proposed selectively double-tracking the line between Harrisburg and Chattanooga, Tenn. Foster’s plan would have truck ferry trains carry entire tractor-trailers, with their drivers, between the endpoint terminals, at speeds averaging 50 mph. Conventional intermodal flatcar trains would be used, with dormitory coaches for the drivers. The roll-on terminals would be simple, inexpensive, and compact to build. The trains would serve as “rest stops” for the drivers on the NAFTA Trail.

Frank Nolen, a professional engineer and former state senator, has proposed a Rail Ferry. The “Nolen Solution” calls for constructing a wide-gauge double-track railroad in the median of I-81, initially just in Virginia. Flatcar trains up to a mile in length would whisk 50 tractor-trailers at a time through Virginia at speeds averaging 68 mph. Roll-on terminals would be located in the median every 150 miles to 200 miles. Drivers would ride in dormitory coaches for the train portion of their journey.

VARP President Michael Testerman is promoting a higher-speed tier of railroad infrastructure. The Steel Interstate tier could utilize existing railroad rights-of-way, as well as new alignments, initially between Harrisburg and Knoxville. The critical distinction of the Steel Interstate would be that its design would permit the same time-sensitive service that Interstate highways offer, and it would not be used by conventional heavy freight trains. Intermodal and passenger trains would travel on short headways at speeds between 80 mph and 110 mph, requiring automatic train separation and grade separation from roads.

Recent developments hold out hope for a strong I-81 corridor rail component. A representative from Fluor Virginia has met with many rail experts to seek multimodal suggestions for its PPTA proposal. On May 30, 2003, VDOT announced that it would postpone the selection of a finalist to widen I-81 until environmental studies are completed. Intermediate phases of the design process will continue without interruption during the environmental analysis, which could take until at least 2006, allowing more time to make the case for rail.

Virginia is still being enticed by Don Young’s $800-million earmark to come up with a truck separation plan. VDOT announced on June 5 its intention to sign environmental study agreements with both PPTA bidders this year to keep the pilot project money on the table.

RAIL Solution continues to step up its efforts. Organizational meetings were held at the Roanoke Continuing Education Center on April 26 and May 31. Committees have been assigned responsibilities for setting up a website, seeking grants, and producing brochures and other activities. Rail Solution has met with Congressman Rick Boucher and state legislators William Wampler, Phillip Puckett and Joe P. Johnson.

More information about RAIL Solution is available at or contact Rees Shearer at (276) 944-5355 or Michael Testerman at / (804) 649-1405.