Road to Perdition

Are Smog-Belching "Truck Tollways" a Congestion Solution?

Fifteen years from now, 28,000 trucks a day, many of them hauling double or triple trailers, may be speeding up and down special truck lanes on Virginia’s Interstate 81, belching tons of carbon monoxide into the Shenandoah Valley each year. Proponents of "toll truckways," such as the influential libertarian Reason Foundation think tank, believe they are the wave of the future and the answer to the nation’s transportation needs.

Construction underway on Virginia"s I-81 is a precursor to the proposed billion truck tollway.© Marcus Roth

Today, trucks on the four-lane I-81 account for as much as 40 percent of total traffic, thanks in part to the North American Free Trade Agreement. The road, which has become known as the "East Coast Truck Bypass," offers truckers a straight shot from the Deep South to Canada, skirting the major metropolitan areas along I-95. But heavy truck traffic, congestion, and mountainous terrain have created some of the deadliest sections of highway on the East Coast.

With traffic expected to double in 20 years, everyone seems to agree that something needs to be done to make the highway safer. The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is considering a plan to transform 325 miles of I-81 into the nation’s first toll truckway. The proposal, submitted by a consortium of companies called STAR Solutions, would add four additional truck-only lanes and some general-use lanes at a cost of up to $13 billion.

Doubling the number of trucks will certainly alter this peaceful, rural valley, which runs parallel to the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah National Park. Local environmentalists are alarmed by the plan to pave thousands of acres of land.

"There will definitely be effects on the environment, everything from air quality to noise pollution, erosion and toxic runoff into groundwater, acid rain, loss of wildlife and sprawl," says Barbara Walsh, director of the Rockbridge Area Conservation Council. She adds that the truckway would bring many of the health problems associated with big city pollution: asthma, lung cancer, heart attacks, and even more deadly accidents caused by increased traffic and the estimated 15 years of construction.

Studies suggest that highway traffic follows a trend similar to the law of supply and demand: the more roads you build, the more people will drive. Traffic projections for STAR’s plan show that I-81 will be filled to capacity soon after completion. "And that would suggest another round of road building," says Walsh. "It’s a continuous loop."

Conservationists favor an alternative proposal drawn up by RAIL Solution, a grassroots organization of concerned citizens throughout the valley. The "Steel Interstate" plan, which costs much less than the proposed truckway, envisions a modernized high-speed railway carrying the bulk of freight through the corridor. It would require much less intrusive construction, far less land acquisition and paving, and would be far quieter and cleaner, consuming only one-third the amount of fuel per ton-mile compared to trucking. The group concedes that some additional lanes are necessary in certain problem areas along the interstate, but they argue that congestion and pollution can be better relieved by diverting trucks onto a system of high-speed intermodal rail of the sort already in use in Canada, Europe and Australia.

VDOT has agreed to review RAIL Solution’s proposal. But it has already entered negotiations with STAR Solutions and is simultaneously in the process of preparing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The STAR plan has some powerful backers including the Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation Don Young (R-AK). He has promised to earmark $1.6 billion of federal money for the I-81 toll pilot project because "it’s close enough to where the rest of my Congressional friends can see it. And once they see it then they will be mandated across this country," he said in an interview with Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call. Young, an ex-truck driver, believes privately built truck-separated toll roads will be the freight movers of the future.

Public-private partnerships have become an increasingly popular way for budget-strapped states to fund large infrastructure projects. At least 20 states in the last decade have passed legislation tearing down barriers between the public and private sectors, and Virginia has become a role model thanks to its 1995 Public-Private Transportation Act (PPTA). This law invites private companies to submit proposals to design, build and maintain major infrastructure projects.

The STAR consortium (led by Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root) took advantage of Virginia’s law and submitted its unsolicited truckway proposal to VDOT in 2002 with the aid of consultant Jim Atwell, the former assistant commissioner of VDOT (who helped draft the PPTA law back in 1995).

In addition to Halliburton, the STAR team boasts an impressive lineup, such as Koch Industries, the nation’s largest privately owned energy company; Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, the management consultant for Boston’s leaky, $12 billion overbudget Big Dig (whose tunnels are now a major safety question); and Salomon Smith Barney, who has been implicated in the Enron and WorldCom scandals. In charge of "government relations" is Randy DeLay, younger brother of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. STAR team members contributed at least $48,000 to Young’s 16th reelection campaign last year.

VDOT outsourced the EIS to the engineering firm Vanasse Hangen Brustlin (VHB). Originally a member of the STAR team, VHB was released from the group "because the company wanted to bid to do work on the environmental study," admits Fred Altizer, VDOT’s project manager for I-81. VDOT has agreed to pay VHB $11 million to complete the study.

Critics argue that negotiating with STAR before completing the EIS is putting the cart before the horse. "Why is VDOT negotiating with a contractor when they still haven’t decided what to build?" questions Reese Shearer, chairperson of RAIL Solution.

Opposition to the toll truckway plan is growing. Forty towns and counties along the corridor have passed official resolutions criticizing the plan. Currently Virginia’s General Assembly is debating a bill that would require VDOT to cease negotiations with STAR until the EIS is completed. "There’s tremendous public concern," says Trip Pollard of the Southern Environmental Law Center. "I think the more people look at that project the less they’re going to like it. You just can’t build your way out of congestion. As you sprawl more, you have to drive more."

Now that two radically different solutions to the mess on I-81 have been proposed, Virginia is at a crossroads and the rest of the country is poised to follow. Texas, for instance, is proposing to build the Trans-Texas Corridor, a $185 billion, 4,000-mile expressway network. For Texas Governor Rick Perry, it’s a "visionary transportation plan"; for the Texas Sierra Club, it’s financially irresponsible and an invitation to sprawl.