Six States Seek Stimulus Aid to Add Rail to Congestion-Plagued I-81

Interstate 81 stretches for 846 miles through six states — New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and Tennessee — and serves as a crucial corridor for freight traffic. But crucial doesn’t mean safe or enjoyable, and I-81 is an undisputed hotbed of traffic accidents.

PH2009073103825.jpgThe safety and freight challenge that is I-81. (Photo: WaPo)

As the Washington Post reported in July, one out of every four vehicles on I-81 is a truck, a higher rate than the road was designd for. Between 2003 and 2007, the Post found, I-81’s accident fatality rate was nearly twice the size of the much larger I-95, which experienced more crashes overall.

So what can be done to keep freight cargo moving while making I-81 safer and more efficient? Unfortunately, environmental groups and local residents have spent much of their time fighting off plans to widen the highway, including an $11.4 billion effort to double the number of lanes for nearly half the length of the road.

But that misguided pursuit of more lanes could be coming to an end, judging from today’s news out of Roanoke, where the I-81 Corridor Coalition has been holding its annual meeting.

Virginia Transportation Secretary Pierce Homer told the gathering that the six states along I-81, in adition to several southern neighbors, are seeking $300 million in economic stimulus aid to pay for expansion of freight rail.

It’s likely that the six states are seeking money from the stimulus law’s TIGER grant program, a $1.5 billion U.S. DOT congestion-reduction fund that has drawn intense interest, in the form of $57 billion worth of applications.

Given the fierce competition for TIGER awards, and Homer’s estimate that rail upgrades to the I-81 corridor would cost more than $2.1 billion, it’s worth asking whether that stimulus request could have been even larger — and whether the U.S. DOT can continue distributing merit-based grants even after the stimulus money has been spent.

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