It would be an understatement to call the political climate in Virginia — and America — divisive. But you couldn’t apply that same adjective to the group of more than 80 assembled under a tent Thursday in Dublin.
There, a rare unanimity prevailed.
Nary a person raised a squeak to dispute that Interstate 81 is a traffic-clogged menace. Not one ventured that he or she looks forward to driving on the highway. Though one speaker called it “the most critical artery” in Virginia, nobody offered the road a smidgen of praise.
In fact, most of the attendees probably could offer hair-raising tales of sheer terror, near death or mind-blowing frustration from being caught in yet another miles-long backup on Virginia’s most overloaded interstate.
From as far away as Charlottesville, they came together in late morning at the Holston River Quarry, one of 14 sand and gravel pits operated by Salem Stone Corp. Jay O’Brien, president of the company, offered a buffet lunch.
And they heard some statistics cited by Rob Lanham, of the Virginia Transportation Construction Alliance, an industry group pushing major I-81 upgrades:
- Slightly fewer than 325 miles of the interstate are in Virginia and connect 21 cities and 13 counties. (The total length is 855 miles from the southern and northern terminuses in Tennessee and at the New York-Canada border.)
- The Virginia stretch, which is four lanes in each direction in all but a handful of places, is 50 percent over the traffic capacity of its design.
- The traffic load has more than doubled in the past 20 years and more than tripled in urban areas such as Roanoke.
- Some 11.7 million trucks travel I-81 in Virginia annually — that’s more than 42 percent of all interstate truck traffic in the commonwealth.
- The Virginia portion sees 2,000 crashes a year, or more than five a day.
- Of those, 26 percent involve trucks, the highest percentage for any interstate in Virginia.
- Last year 30 separate crashes took more than six hours each to clear.
- Half of the delays on I-81 are caused by crashes and other “incidents.” That’s triple the cause-of-delay average for other Virginia interstates.
Heads nodded and knowing looks were exchanged as Lanham reeled off those stats and more.
He urged people to communicate their frustration by writing delegates and senators through the web portal, www.itstime81.com.
A number of the folks present, such as Roanoker Stan Lanford, or reps from Carter Machinery, are involved in the road-building business.
But just as many of the people in the crowd weren’t representing the constructions trades. There were police officers who patrol I-81; leaders from Virginia Tech and Radford universities whose students use the highway on road trips to college or home; elected and appointed officials whose constituents travel the highway daily; car and truck dealers; and even a grocery store manager.
O’Brien, who acknowledged Salem Stone would gain a limited amount of business from major improvements to the highway, said his point for Thursday’s assembly was that everybody in Western Virginia has skin in this game.
“We want [our employees] to go home safe, and to get here safely the next day,” he said.
Here’s what wasn’t offered at the get-together: solutions. The obvious one is widening the highway. Doing that for all 325 miles would cost on the order of $2 billion to $3 billion and perhaps more.
Deliberately, nobody on Thursday talked about the means of financing fixes to I-81. In the past, various schemes have included tolls, moving trucks off the highway by adding rail capacity and gas tax increases.
Lanham offered a single tantalizing hint that seemed to favor the latter. This year in state legislative districts across America, he said, 96 percent of Republican incumbents and 97 percent of Democratic incumbents “who voted for a gas tax increase won their primary elections.”
But what about in Virginia, where state legislative elections are in odd-numbered years, and hardly any voters show up to cast ballots in primaries? Would stats like those Lanham cited provide political cover in the Old Dominion?
It seems unlikely. How many Virginia politicians in the past 20 years have staked their campaigns on gas tax increases or even tolls as traffic on I-81 has doubled? Have we reached a critical mass on that question? Are we at a breaking point where that’s something we could conceivably see?
I asked myself that as I veered my car off that infernal highway at Exit 118C in Christiansburg, and headed back to Roanoke on U.S. 460.
I couldn’t arrive at any answers. But I did arrive home in one piece. Any road seems safer than Interstate 81.