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Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Rail said answer to I-81 gridlock in Virginia

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Virginia could eliminate about one in three trucks from Interstate 81 with extensive --and expensive -- rail improvements, a consultant told the Roanoke Times. Given the high cost and logistical barriers to such a plan, however, the consultant endorses a more modest approach that will shift fewer trucks -- perhaps one in seven -- much to the disappointment of some railroad supporters.

Three years in the making at a cost of $75,000, the December report from consultant Cambridge Systematics recommends Virginia stick to its present plan to address truck congestion on I-81: funding the Crescent Corridor.

The Crescent Corridor is a proposed new intermodal rail service under which Norfolk Southern intends to expand its rail system to better compete with, and integrate with, highway trucking. The corridor is designed to link the southern freight hubs of New Orleans and Memphis, Tenn., with those in New Jersey.

Construction of $2.5 billion worth of terminals, track and other elements, which began in 2008, could reach the end of phase one in 2011 or 2012 and allow for the start of limited service, NS says.

Even before the report arrived, Virginia had pledged $95 million to construction of parts of the Virginia leg of the 2,500-mile corridor as the state's strategy to alleviate heavy truck traffic on I-81. That's the way to go, Cambridge says.

A draft of the report, "Feasibility Plan for Maximum Truck to Rail Diversion in Virginia's I-81 Corridor," is open for public comment through Wednesday, after which the final version will be issued.

The report's chief finding is that the Crescent Corridor could shift about 13.5 percent of trucks off I-81 onto train tracks that run north and south through the western and central parts of the state. That's worth doing, said Kevin Page, chief of rail transportation for the state.

"The 13.5 percent we feel is a very strong opportunity to move trucks off of the road," Page said.

But rail advocates imagine something far more ambitious than the Crescent Corridor.

"We were disappointed with the outcome of the study," said Kate Wofford, who directs the Shenandoah Valley Network, which speaks out on land protection, land use and transportation issues in the valley. "We wanted the study to go further than Crescent Corridor."

Rail Solution, a Salem advocacy group, said if state leaders and Cambridge will fully embrace the trucks-to-rail concept, and spend billions on it instead of roads, rail could attract countless more trucks off I-81.

How about a high-speed, north-south train with platforms to hold any type of long-haul truck? Truckers ride, too, in private sleeping compartments. It runs between Knoxville, Tenn., and Harrisburg, Pa., but only as a pilot project. Later, it is extended along the eastern U.S. This approach, which is in the rail diversion report, would shift an estimated 38 percent of the trucks off I-81.

The consultant put the price tag for Virginia infrastructure at $9 billion versus $500 million for the Crescent Corridor and labeled such a deluxe rail system "feasibility unknown."

Page said he welcomes discussion about such a vision but said it would require not only massive public and private spending, but newer technology, multi-state cooperation that is still being put in place and more evidence of the trucking industry's likely receptiveness to the rail alternative.

Already some 500,000 containers a year move through the corridor on rail, Page said. Without rail, they would be behind trucks. When the Crescent Corridor is fully operational, "we will basically be doubling that," Page said.

That's not going to defuse the concern about trucks with truck volume running at an average of 23 percent of the traffic on I-81, the highest truck percentage in the state. But it is expected to help manage their growth.

Without diversion, the number of trucks is expected to double from more than 3 million a year now to more than 7 million a year in 2035 along the length of the interstate, Cambridge said.

At a time when Virginia is struggling financially, endorsing a multibillion-dollar, private railroad project may sound like a mistake. However, long-term trends are ominous.

One of the state's major, long-term transportation issues is how to keep traffic moving on I-81 -- a major U.S. freight route -- during the next 25 years. Without major investment, there will be gridlock, forecasts say.

Dana Martin, who represents the Roanoke and New River valleys on the Commonwealth Transportation Board, said transportation planners agree it will take some combination of highway work and railroad expansion to handle expected increases in both passenger vehicles and trucks.

After several earlier reports failed to satisfactorily address the issue, in 2007 the General Assembly funded a detailed investigation of the role of rail in handling the heavy volumes of freight in the I-81 corridor. The draft runs 96 pages.

So far, Virginia alone has funneled public money to the Crescent Corridor project. But Pennsylvania is considering doing so. Virginia, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee have joined to apply for $300 million in additional money from the federal stimulus program because they all want the corridor to cross their states.

David Foster, who directs Rail Solution, said he intends to try to get the report changed to favor something more dramatic by filing extensive comments. If the report stands as is, Virginia will move forward with what Foster called a "minimalist" truck-to-rail strategy that will handle only containerized freight and won't do enough good to forestall a major widening of I-81.

Bill Schafer, Norfolk Southern's director of strategic operations, said the company genuinely wants to expand its intermodal services. To do it profitably, the company believes the next right thing is the Crescent Corridor project, he said.

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