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Let's Get Get Those Freight Trucks Off the Road and Put America Back on Tracks

A nineteenth-century technology could be the solution to our twenty-first-century problems.
 
 
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Six days before Thanksgiving, a truck driver heading south on Interstate 81 through Shenandoah County, Virginia, ploughed his tractor trailer into a knot of cars that had slowed on the rain-slicked highway. The collision killed an eighty-year-old woman and her one- and four-year-old grandchildren, and brought traffic to a standstill along a ten-mile stretch of road for the better part of the afternoon.

It was a tragedy, but not an unusual one. Semis account for roughly one out of every four vehicles that travel through Virginia on I-81’s four lanes, the highest percentage of any interstate in the country. They’re there for a reason: I-81 traces a mostly rural route all the way from the Canadian border to Tennessee, and the cities in its path -- Syracuse, Scranton, Harrisburg, Hagerstown, and Roanoke among them -- are midsized and slow growing. This makes the highway a tempting alternative to I-95, the interstate that connects the eastern seaboard’s major metropolises, which is so beset with tolls and congestion that truckers will drive hundreds of extra miles to avoid it.

This is bad news for just about everyone. Even truckers have to deal with an increasingly overcrowded, dangerous I-81, and for motorists it’s a white-knuckle terror. Because much of the road is hilly, they find themselves repeatedly having to pass slow-moving trucks going uphill, only to see them looming large in the rearview mirror on the down grade. For years, state transportation officials have watched I-81 get pounded to pieces by tractor trailers, which are responsible for almost all non-weather-related highway wear and tear. To make matters worse, traffic is projected to rise by 67 percent in just the next ten years.

The conventional response to this problem would be simply to build more lanes. That’s what highway departments do. But at a cost of $11 billion, or $32 million per mile, Virginia cannot afford to do that without installing tolls, which might have to be set as high as 17 cents per mile for automobiles. When Virginia’s Department of Transportation proposed doing this early last year, truckers and ordinary Virginians alike set off a firestorm of protest. At the same time, just making I-81 wider without adding tolls would make its truck traffic problems worse, as still more trucks diverted from I-95 and other routes.

Looking for a way out of this dilemma, Virginia transportation officials have settled on an innovative solution: use state money to get freight off the highway and onto rails. As it happens, running parallel to I-81 through the Shenandoah Valley and across the Piedmont are two mostly single-track rail lines belonging to the Norfolk Southern Railroad. Known as the Crescent Corridor, these lines have seen a resurgence of trains carrying containers, just like most of the trucks on I-81 do. The problem is that the track needs upgrading and there are various choke points, so the Norfolk Southern cannot run trains fast enough to be time competitive with most of the trucks hurtling down I-81. Even before the recent financial meltdown, the railroad couldn’t generate enough interest from Wall Street investors to improve the line.

The railroad has long been reluctant to accept government investment in its infrastructure out of fear of public meddling, such as being compelled to run money-losing passenger trains. But now, like most of the industry, it has changed its mind, and it happily accepted Virginia’s offer last year to fund a small portion -- $40 million -- of the investment needed to get more freight traffic off I-81 and onto the Crescent Corridor. The railroad estimates that with an additional $2 billion in infrastructure investment, it could divert a million trucks off the road, which is currently carrying just under five million. State officials are thinking even bigger: a study sponsored by the Virginia DOT finds that a cumulative investment over ten to twelve years of less than $8 billion would divert 30 percent of the growing truck traffic on I-81 to rail. That would be far more bang for the state’s buck than the $11 billion it would take to add more lanes to the highway, especially since it would bring many other public benefits, from reduced highway accidents and lower repair costs to enormous improvements in fuel efficiency and pollution reduction. Today, a single train can move as many containers as 280 trucks while using one-third as much energy -- and that’s before any improvements to rail infrastructure.

 
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