HARRISONBURG — The upcoming $2.2 billion in improvements on Interstate 81 were included in a report called “Highway Boondoggles 5” put forward by think-tanks Frontier Group and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
“The term boondoggle and why we decided to apply it to this sort of highway project is it’s something that is wasteful,” said Matt Casale, one of the report’s authors and transportation campaign director for US Public Interest Research Groups. “It appears to have value, but is ultimately wasteful.”
The annual report included nine highway projects, which are slated to begin shortly and have price tags running from $300 million to $48 billion.
The report argues that if safety is the purpose of the I-81 improvements, widening the road will not solve the problems on the highway.
For instance, reducing speed would be a cost-effective solution to decreasing the amount of accidents, which cause much of the traffic on the roadway, Casale said.
In 2010, state officials raised the speed limit to 70 miles-per-hour along most of I-81.
The rise in speed limit “itself likely made the road more dangerous rising speed limits are responsible for a lot of the crashes we see in the U.S.,” Casale said.
The widening of the highway falls victim to “the fundamental law of road congestion,” he said, which states that adding more lanes creates more traffic.
There will be immediate relief when the new lanes are added at first, Casale said, but “it sets off a chain of decision making that brings more cars to the road.”
Some of these examples would be more people driving as the route is now faster and people opting to move outside of urban centers due to the quality of the roadway.
“Even if you get a short-term rightway congestion relief, within a couple of years if not sooner that congestion relief goes away,” Casale said.
Casale said the other improvements included in the funding, such as improved speed enforcement, new traffic cameras, changeable signs, expanded safety service patrols and emergency clearance services are all great ways to improve safety on roads.
“The issue with this specific highway is this highway widening portion that is tacked onto all these other necessary improvements,” he said.
Some local legislators disagree with the report’s conclusions about the highway projects.
“I hate to say that these people don’t know what they’re talking about,” said Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham. “But they don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Obenshain had supported legislation to improve I-81 in the past, but did not approve of the bill that eventually got signed by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam because the method of funding was a regional gas tax versus a toll system.
Sen. Hanger, R-Mount Solon, and Del. Steve Landes, R-Weyers Cave, also opposed the bill at the vote, while Del. Tony Wilt, R-Broadway, voted in favor of it.
The proposed toll system would have used six gantries along the corridor and allowed for free daily travel through a gantry, but the idea was nixed in favor of a regional gas tax on localities near and containing I-81.
Nonetheless, the widening is in specific “pinch-points,” where slow-moving traffic constantly merges with high-speed traffic, Obenshain said.
“We know that is one of the leading causes of accidents,” he said.
Safety on the roadway is a complex problem with no “silver bullet,” Obenshain said.
“These are things we have identified with a collaborative compromise process and been able to bring forward and we hope and expect that this is going to significantly improve the reliability and safety of travel along Interstate 81,” he said.
Truck climbing lanes are a safety feature which have already proven their worth and are part of the I-81 improvement budget and the sheer narrowness of the lane is also a concern, according to Hanger.
“You just need more space out there for the volume of traffic that’s there,” Hanger said.
Transitioning more of the shipping traffic from truck to rail would also help safety on the road, he said.
“I know the rail companies are trying to be more competitive,” however, it is not optimal for shipping business using the just in-time model to rely on rail, Hanger said.
Barring the use of handheld devices would also improve safety on the roadway, he said.
In Virginia, it is illegal to text and drive, but there have been efforts in the General Assembly to bar all handheld use of phones.
Landes, who was a Delegate at the time of I-81 improvements bill passing and is now a candidate for the Augusta County Clerk of Circuit Court, agreed with Hanger about the value and effectiveness of the truck climbing lanes.
Also, the implementation of larger vehicles to remove wrecked vehicles will improve safety on the road.
Attempts to contact Del. Tony Wilt, R-Broadway, by print deadline were unsuccessful.
Wilt was named to the I-81 improvement committee on June 14, according to previous Daily News-Record reports.
The committee is tasked with giving advice and recommendations to the Virginia Commonwealth Transportation Board regarding the I-81 Corridor Improvement Plan and features a variety of representatives from localities along the corridor.