Report: No truck-only toll lanes for I-81

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A new vision for improving Interstate 81 was announced Thursday, Sept. 21, leaving behind the idea of separate truck lanes — along with the truck-only tolls that would have paid for them. The Roanoke Times reported that the new plan was presented to the Commonwealth Transportation Board by officials of the Virginia Department of Transportation, who told the Times the transportation board may consider the changes next month.

Instead of an eight-lane, border-to-border upgrade that has been studied for three years, the transportation planners said Virginia needs to move faster on I-81 by making safety improvements such as more truck-climbing lanes and longer ramps at a few interchanges. Rail upgrades are part of the planners’ picture, too, with a study led by Norfolk Southern Corp. that could lead to government transportation dollars being used to upgrade tracks on NS’ north-south lines.

The quick fixes don’t change the need to add lanes to I-81, the transportation planners told the Times; the highway is sure to be heavily congested by 2035, with double today’s cars and triple the number of trucks. However, the concept of an eight-lane highway with tolls on truck-only lanes just won’t work and “is not being advanced” in the environmental impact study that is almost complete after three years of work by VDOT, said Pierce Homer, state transportation secretary.

“It’s about time,” Jay Smith, a spokesman for the trucking industry, told the Times. The industry has fought the truck-only tolls concept since it was proposed in 2002 by Star Solutions, a road builders consortium.

Four members of the transportation board who represent the I-81 corridor echoed Smith’s time sentiment. Dana Martin of Roanoke, James Davis of Winchester, Jim Bowie of Bristol and James Lee Keen of Vansant all said the I-81 planning process has taken too long already. “What I’ve heard from so many people is, ‘What are you waiting for?’ ” Martin told the Times.