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Transportation body intrigued by trucks-to-rail concept for Interstate 81

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Interstate 81 carries Virginia’s highest proportion of truck traffic.

A trucks-to-rail strategy to unsnarl Interstate 81 in Virginia fascinated several members of the Roanoke Valley Transportation Planning Organization, one of whom declared, “I do love that concept.”

Those words from Billy Martin, chairman of the Botetourt County Board of Supervisors, echoed comments by Phil North, chairman of the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors. Putting trucks on trains is a fresh-sounding approach to I-81 congestion relief, the men said in response to a briefing Thursday by David Foster of Salem-based Rail Solutions.

The nonprofit has said for years that rather than pour billions of dollars into widening I-81, Virginia should instead double-track the adjacent Norfolk Southern rail line to carry ‘through’ trucks — those that pass entirely through the state without a need to stop. Trucks-to-rail advocates envision those trucks riding on trains instead of using the Virginia portion of the interstate.

Proponents say the approach could divert tons of northbound and southbound freight, while easing pressure on I-81.

Foster has said the basic service could run between Knoxville, Tennessee, and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, “a nice, 600-mile corridor,” and allow truck drivers to sleep on the train. Freight loads would continue moving even though drivers are resting and engines are off.

Foster said he could picture terminals on each end where truckers would drive their rigs onto a train with perhaps 30 truck positions. “Every time one [train] was loaded, they would go,” he said.

A former railroad executive for 24 years, Foster estimated the system ’s price would be on par with adding one lane of interstate in each direction.

“We could become a pioneer and do the first project of this type in the United States,” said Foster. Europe puts heavy trucks on trains to free up highway space for other vehicles, he said.

“Google ‘rolling highway,’” Foster said. Another name for the concept is “steel interstate.”

Foster contends that if Virginia widens the interstate, it will fill up with more traffic, including more trucks, without achieving congestion relief.

Jeremy Latimer, director of rail programs at the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, said Virginia is actively seeking to expand freight movement by rail.

Latimer did not believe his agency had evaluated the trucks-to-rail scheme being pushed by Rail Solutions.

“It’s an interesting concept,” he said.

North said he hoped the transportation body — involved with planning and budgeting for certain local and federal transportation projects — would consider adopting a resolution urging state and federal lawmakers to take a closer look.

“We need to ponder this topic of rail,” said North, who is retired from Norfolk Southern. “A lot of people don’t know what we just heard today.”

The discussion is outside the current debate about I-81 at the General Assembly in Richmond, which has narrowed to two potential methods financing methods for a 10-year, $2.2 billion package of road work that would include new lanes.

The initiative began with a state study in 2018 on improving I-81 traffic flow . That study did not include rail as an option because that was outside the study mandate from the General Assembly and the team had limited time, according to Ben Mannell, I-81 Corridor Improvement Plan project manager.

“How does rail fit in?” Mannell asked the transportation planning organization. “We do think there are opportunities.”

The General Assembly in 2007 funded an analysis of making greater use of rail for freight. It found that Virginia could remove about one in three trucks from I-81 with extensive, expensive rail improvements.

The state didn’t pursue the option because of its cost. But state officials have said that no amount of new pavement will ensure a complete or long-term solution to I-81 corridor transportation needs .


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Jeff Sturgeon covers the city of Roanoke, including schools, banking and transportation. Phone: (540) 981-3251. Email: Mail: 201 W. Campbell Ave., Roanoke, VA 24011.

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