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Truckers' Perspective on I-81

Virginia lawmakers voted Wednesday [April 2] to hike gas taxes in some parts of the state to improve Interstate 81.  Earlier this year, trucking groups helped scuttle a proposal for truck tolls to pay for improvements to the interstate.  WMRA’s Jason Barr reports on all this from a trucker’s perspective.

I’m sitting behind the wheel of a tractor trailer driving simulator, a training tool used by Jim Butler.  He’s the CDL Program Coordinator at Blue Ridge Community College. The simulation is incredibly real; the air brakes hiss, the hydraulics lift me up, and I’m on my way, guiding a truck down the road and trying my best not to crash.  But there are some things that a simulator can’t teach its students.

JIM BUTLER: We’re all juiced up, we’re driving 60 miles an hour, and I wanna get there very fast, and if I gotta go 58, I can’t go 60 […] if you get in my way, it juices me up even more.  Trucks are that times ten; they get all of that, all of the time.  And that’s hard to tell a driver how to cope with.  I don’t know how to cope with it sometimes.

And, he says, it’s not just the job itself.  It’s being away from home.

JIM BUTLER: Then you have a process of, ‘I gotta be out here for two weeks, or one week, and I’m gone.’  That’s hard on an individual, man or woman, and you’re living in a box, you’re living in this lifestyle where you’re here tomorrow, and somewhere else you’re stuck in traffic or stuck in a snowstorm.  I didn’t make as much money last week; my phone’s getting cut off.  My insurance isn’t paid, my wife’s gonna leave me, my husband’s cheating on me.  You know, whatever the multitude of stories that’s going on, I’ve got to process, in a truck, everyday, and my boss is hollering at me because I’m thirty minutes late.  I’m exhausted.  And it’s only ten o’clock in the morning.  I’ve already been at this for three hours, and I’m already tired.  

But even if you make a conscious effort to avoid it, you will still be affected by the daily traffic that courses up and down the interstate.  The prices you pay, the products you expect to be delivered on time, are all dependent on how smoothly – or not smoothly – traffic on 81 flows.  And that depends largely on the flow of trucks. Dale Bennett is the head of the Virginia Trucking Association.

DALE BENNETT: According to numbers provided by VDOT, I-81 carries 11.7 million trucks a year, which works out to about 32,000 trucks per day along the entire 325 miles of the corridor. And then from an economic point of view, those trucks are hauling about $312 billion worth of goods every year.  Eighty-eight percent of the manufactured freight in Virginia is transported by truck. So those consumer demands are going to naturally result in an increase in truck traffic and freight transportation to meet those demands. And then as the economy’s gotten better, people have been out traveling more.

More trucks, and more cars.  Bennett says that trucking companies in other heavily populated areas of the state—think Hampton Roads or Northern Virginia—often make schedules around commuter traffic in order to become more efficient.

DALE BENNETT: Believe you me, in congested areas of the state and the country, trucking companies try to do what they can to schedule their trucks not to be there during normal rush hours.

But Interstate 81, which is already overcrowded, can bring trucking to a halt, quite literally, at any time.  It’s impossible to plan around.

In fact, in a report released by VDOT in 2018, the department estimates that there are more than 2,000 accidents per year on Interstate 81, with around 30 crashes a year taking more than six hours to clear away.

That’s why legislators are under increasing pressure to improve the traffic flow on 81. Senator Mark Obenshain of Harrisonburg and Delegate Steve Landes of Augusta County introduced bills in this year’s General Assembly session providing for tolls on Interstate 81, a proposal that drew swift opposition from trucking groups.  The Virginia Trucking Association’s Dale Bennett explains that the proposal meant turning an existing interstate into a toll road, which would have been an extraordinary move.

DALE BENNETT:  We, along with a number of other organizations, and especially our customers, have concerns about tolling existing interstate highways. Most toll roads that people drive on in this country were originally built as toll roads and then later incorporated into the system.

In an effort to find solutions and the money to fund them,  the General Assembly instead put together The Interstate 81 Committee, and created the Interstate 81 Corridor Improvement Fund.

It’s an election year in Virginia, and since Landes announced his retirement, the door is open wider for even more discussion about Interstate 81, as a new field of candidates vie for the seat.  In announcing his bid for Landes’ seat as a Republican, local business owner Chris Runion said that “We need to have that conversation, and that conversation needs to be comprehensive.

Interestingly, among current politicians in the Valley, very few of them directly address the issues on Interstate 81 on their web sites.  However, in January, Delegates Dickie Bell and Ben Cline, along with Landes, sent a letter to their U.S. senators and representatives, including Mark Warner and Bob Goodlatte, whose seat Cline had won in November, asking for assistance in improving Interstate 81.

The Interstate 81 Committee must make recommendations by December 15.  Until then, the congestion, and accidents, will likely just get worse.

Jason Barr is a long-time resident of the Valley. His academic work has appeared in The Explicator, African American Review, and The Journal of Carribean Literatures. His first book, The Kaiju Film, was released in 2016 by McFarland Press. He is currently a composition and literature teacher at Blue Ridge Community College.