Those forces have converged in the mountains and valleys of western Virginia, where, all day and all night, the couriers of American commerce curl along I-81. Tractor-trailers dominate what has become known as the “NAFTA Highway” and move through like a rolling market of the nation’s products and services — Bud Light, Serta, Flav-O-Rich, FedEx. More than a few of the rigs cough gray-black smoke into the air that colors the Blue Ridge.
What ultimately happens here will have profound implications for one of Virginia’s most treasured landscapes, truck traffic in the Washington region and how goods are moved across the nation in the coming decades.
If a truck-only highway goes forward, it will mark a fundamental shift for an interstate system originally built to connect America to itself, not solely to facilitate the movement of goods.
“The emphasis for the last 50 years or so was to build a highway system to serve both autos and freight, and as you look out 50 years, those may not always be compatible,” said Pierce R. Homer, Virginia’s deputy transportation secretary and the head of a panel that picked the “truckway” solution for I-81. “It’s no longer just a part of creating linkages among communities. It’s about managing the movement of commodities in the 21st century. It’s a very, very big deal.”
This is its appeal to freight haulers. It provides a straight, toll-free shot from the south through the mid-Atlantic and northeast. The interstate also bypasses the traffic of most major cities but runs close enough to them that truckers can take a quick turn onto other highways and motor directly to population centers.
The new roadway that would address these issues would be built by a private consortium called Safer Transport and Roadways (STAR) Solutions, whose $6.4 billion plan calls for doubling I-81 within 15 years with a combination of federal, state and private funds and a proposal to charge tolls. STAR and state officials are negotiating the terms of a contract, and if an agreement can be reached, no other approvals are needed.
This is an interesting idea. Still, it seems like an expensive way to solve the myriad of problems that come when 18-wheelers and 4-wheelers share the same road. A more sensible solution would be to restrict the freight haulers to the rightmost lane and/or to limit them to off-peak hours as is quite common in Europe.