My World: Environmental Effects of Expanding I-81

Aug 8, 2019

Tractor trailers idling at a truck stop just off Interstate 81 in the Shenandoah Valley.
Credit Bridget Manley

Yesterday, we launched the first part of an occasional series on WMRA called My World, with an exploration of the environmental effects of Interstate 81.  In today’s follow-up, WMRA’s Bridget Manley examines what the expansion of Interstate 81 might mean for the environment.

[Diesel engine running…]

Eleven million tractor-trailers use Interstate 81 every year, according to the Virginia Commonwealth Transportation Board. The board estimates that by 2040, there will be more than 20 million trucks on I-81 each year.

And currently, the majority of Interstate 81 is two lanes on both sides.

Republican State Senator Mark Obenshain represents the 26th District in Virginia, where a stretch of I-81 passes through.
Credit Mark Obenshain

SEN. MARK OBENSHAIN: Quite frankly, we have a push and a pull, and it is absolutely essential for us to have a safe and reliable artery for commerce up and down the interstate.

Republican State Senator Mark Obenshain represents the 26th District in Virginia, where a stretch of I-81 resides. He is one of a number of legislators in the commonwealth who have worked on finding various forms of funding for the expansion of I-81.

OBENSHAIN: We have too many vehicles on the interstate for its current composition, and it’s dangerous. It’s just a fact of life that we have to make safety improvements to the interstate. These safety improvements aren’t going to dramatically increase the level of traffic - it’s already increasing. This is going to ensure that those who use the interstate can safely do so.

The General Assembly in April approved funding for improvements and widening for Interstate 81, and some stakeholders in the Virginia 81 corridor think that while construction of new highway might temporarily affect the environment surrounding the interstate, ultimately, widening the lanes will help reduce car crashes. This might help in reducing particulates from idling tractor trailers stuck in traffic on the highway.

Andrew Alden is the Executive Director of the Interstate 81 Corridor Coalition. He believes that a multi-pronged approach of federal emissions regulations, a wider highway, and better use of Virginia’s rail systems might ultimately help improve the environmental health of Interstate 81. Then again, he says, bigger roads may mean more traffic, which means more particulates, and solutions might become more complex.

Andrew Alden is the Executive Director of the Interstate 81 Corridor Coalition.
Credit Andrew Alden on LinkedIn

ANDREW ALDEN: There’s a lot of invented energy and bottled energy that goes into things like asphalt, and concrete, and so, yeah, that initial building of the highway is going to have an environmental impact. If the highway is improved, and it’s reputations improved, and more traffic is flowing through there because of that, “if you build it they will come” kind of concept, it’s entirely possible that you may end up with pollution coming from the smokestacks of cars and trucks going by.

But what about putting at least some of that freight on trains?

DAN CRAWFORD: Fifty to sixty percent of those semis have no business in Virginia - they are through traffic. So put the through trucks on a train. The truck, the driver, and everything.

Dan Crawford is the Chairman of the Roanoke group of the Sierra Club. He says that Virginia could copy some European models that use rail systems to transport tractor-trailers that are not stopping locally. That would mean less diesel emissions, and fewer particulates pumped into the air.

The program, called Rail Solution, would use rail tracks already in place to forge a new transportation system for tractor-trailers - putting them on a train and letting the drivers rest while the train rides through the entire state.

CRAWFORD: The special designed train would have a [train] car for the drivers [to rest], and [both] the truck [and] the driver coast through Virginia.  You have much less pollution. The driver arrives - going north, get on at Knoxville, get off in Harrisburg [Pennsylvania]. The driver is rested. Legally, he can drive another ten hours to get to his destination, and so the trucker is happy, rail is happy because they have business, and the public is happy because, let’s face it -- if you got rid of half of the semis on 81, people wouldn’t be desperate for a solution.  

Senator Obenshain has also heard of the proposed rail plan, but doesn’t see a viable way to make it happen. 

OBENSHIAN: In a perfect world, we would have increased utilization of our rail corridors. It does provide us with an economically viable alternative to moving cargo and materials up and down the interstate and across the commonwealth, and across the country. Part of the challenge is that the rail system is privately owned. Short of taking over the rail, nationalizing it, telling trucks that you cannot transport material on the interstate, we don’t have a mandatory way of making people do that.

Alden says that other states are looking into ways that they can utilize the ground between north and south bound lanes, like installing solar panels or pollinator habitats, but the work there is slow because of federal regulations.

ALDEN: In some states, they are actually putting solar in different places, some people are using the sidewalls to mount solar on. Some people are trying to collect wind energy at the roadside.

Obenshain says the future health of the environment and the safety of those traveling Interstate 81 will both benefit from widening the roadway.

OBENSHAIN: I think that it’s a balancing act. We have to continue our efforts to make sure that we operate in an environmentally sound way. That we are good stewards of the environmental resources that we have, but we also provide a reliable and safe means of transportation along the I-81 corridor. It’s vital for our economy.

About Olivia Gardner, who submitted the question about I-81:  Olivia, now a graduate of Riverheads High School in Augusta County, was a student in Courtney Hallacher's Advanced Environmental Science course in Spring 2019.  Olivia was president of the Environmental Science Club at Riverheads.  She's currently enrolled at Blue Ridge Community College (in sight of the Interstate!) for the Fall, and hopes to transfer to Virginia Tech to pursue her interest in plant science.

Courtney Hallacher teaches science courses including advanced environmental science, ecology and anatomy at Riverheads High School.

WMRA is very grateful to Olivia and Courtney for helping us launch this series.  To submit YOUR question about the environment, send a message to WMRA Public Radio on Facebook, or send a tweet @WMRANews.