There was significant rerouted traffic from the flooded roadways in North Carolina on Interstate 81 Tuesday.
Traffic was congested with vehicles and there was increased number of tractor-trailers. Virginia Department of Transportation signs even flashed “Avoid travel in North Carolina. Major roads impassable.”
On this same day, Jeff Southard of the Virginia Transportation Construction Alliance traveled from Richmond to meet with over 30 members and non-members of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce to discuss I-81 improvement initiatives.
“I-81 is on life support. This interstate is 60 years old. It was designed for a 50-year lifespan,” Southard said.
I-81 is 325 miles long in Virginia. It is the longest interstate in the Commonwealth. With I-81 stretching from Dandridge, Tennessee to the Canadian border, Virginia has the longest segment.
From the Virginians for Better Transportation website, Southard cited many of the 81 reasons to fix I-81: annually, $320 billion in goods travel I-81 with 11.7 million trucks per year because it is one of the top eight trucking routes in the United States.
Nearly half of the goods transported in Virginia are carried on I-81.
Thirty Virginia colleges and universities are connected by I-81. Locally, students of Radford University, Virginia Tech and New River Community College depend on I-81.
In fact, at least half of all Virginia college students and their families use I-81.
Highway traffic volume is now 50 percent more than I-81s original designed capacity. Traffic has more than doubled along I-81 in the past 20 years and tripled in urban areas.
A recent survey done via Facebook showed 75 percent of drivers do not feel safe driving I-81. There are approximately 2,000 crashes per year on I-81.
Truck-involved crashes are 26 percent, which is the highest percentage for any interstate in Virginia.
Up to 30 crashes each year require more than six hours clearing the accident scene. Statewide, 16 percent of traffic delays are caused by incidents while on I-81, incidents have caused 51 percent of traffic delays.
The loss of just one lane on I-81 can cut highway capacity by 65 percent especially considering that the majority of I-81 is only two lanes in each direction.
The Virginia Secretary of Transportation I-81 Corridor Improvement Plan states $3.3 billion would be needed complete all of the projects needed on I-81.
Improvements would be based on segments with the highest incident-related delays and crash hotspots.
Operational upgrades are needed with more cameras to detect incidents faster. Changeable message signs (CMS) are needed to inform drivers in real time and in advance of major of incident locations to find alternative routes.
If alternative routes are going to be utilized often, then parallel facilities or roadways. For example, Routes 460 or 11, along I-81 will need upgrading.
Traffic signal operations, signs, pavement markings, bridge improvements and more CMS along those routes will be needed to avoid back-up of traffic on alternate routes and at the accident scene.
Funding could be used for more Safety Service Patrols (SSP) to cover the interstate with services to stranded motorists. SSP are actively seeking events that could cause an accident or delays.
SSP are often the first to arrive at an accident scene and can call appropriate resources and start on-site traffic control.
Improvements to I-81 could also involve contracted emergency clearance crews dedicated to clearing accident scenes with proper equipment especially for large vehicles. With rapid response of such crews, traffic could get moving again faster.
With funding, strategies can be implemented to help truck drivers find locations to park.
Nearly 65 percent of truck drivers spend over fifteen minutes looking for parking between 4 p.m. and midnight to secure a safe spot to park and rest.
Many trucks are parked unsafely on the interstate shoulders and ramps. Real-time information is needed to assist truck drivers in finding parking and complying with hours of service regulations.
The larger solutions to improving I-81 are the widening of I-81 lanes along with constructing auxiliary and truck-climbing lanes.
Many acceleration and deceleration lanes need extensions. Curves along I-81 could be adjusted for safer driving. Interchanges with I-81 can include ramp and intersection modifications.
“The Commonwealth of Virginia would most likely not be able to secure a legislative vote for a budget of $3.3 billion,” Southard said.
“There is no counting on federal funding. A state budget next year could potentially allow $1 to $1.5 billion for I-81. A September 2017 study showed if a $2.5 billion budget could be obtained for I-81 improvements, it would be a $5.2 billion economic benefit across the I-81 regions.”
How to make up the difference in costs? Southard stated consideration is being given to increasing fuel tax, increasing sales tax, establishing tolls on heavy commercial traffic or a mixture of these ideas.
A toll option on I-81 could generate $50 to $200 million revenue in a year. A regional 2.1 percent fuels tax increase could add $60 to $70 million while a 0.7 percent sales tax increase could add $90 to $100 million. All funding options would require the General Assembly vote.
Southard said, “I-81 affects 37 different legislative districts of Virginia’s General Assembly.” Citizens, Chambers of Commerce, business and local governments are needed to contact their State Senators and Delegates to make I-81 a priority in the upcoming 2019 General Assembly session. Southard is also asking Chambers of Commerce and local governments to pass resolutions stressing the need to improve I-81.
The Commonwealth Transportation Board is holding public meetings along the I-81 corridor and is drafting its final plan for presentation to the 2019 General Assembly. To view these plans and provide feedback, visit www.ItsTime81.com