Sierra Club Seeks to Reduce Truck Traffic on I-81

Trucks on I81

Courtesy Wendi Taylor


By Larry Joyce

The Sierra Club is pushing for a solution to traffic problems on Interstate 81 that would save money, reduce air pollution, and ensure the safety of motorists who travel the highway.

To accommodate ever-growing traffic on Interstate 81, which stretches from New Orleans to New York, the State Transportation Commission of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) commissioned a $2 million study to explore ways to alleviate the congestion in Franklin, Cumberland, Dauphin, and Lebanon counties. As a result of the study, PennDOT is proposing to increase the state’s 77-mile stretch of the highway from four to six lanes.

However, the Sierra Club believes that the study should have investigated ways to divert the freight now carried by trucks, to the Norfolk Southern Railroad, which runs parallel the entire length of Interstate 81 from Chambersburg and Harrisburg to Scranton on its way to New York.

More important than alleviating highway congestion by reducing the number of trucks on I-81, the rail alternative would improve air quality. Of the long list of lung hazards, the most pervasive pollutant is particulate matter, or soot. Diesel engine exhaust is a major source of particulate matter air pollution and poses a particular health risk to children, the elderly, and to people with asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and heart disease. The greatest concentration of particulates is found within 900 feet of a highway.

Almost 30,000 trucks pass the I-81/I-83 split near Harrisburg daily and by 2030 that number is projected to increase to almost 60,000. Traffic congestion, noise, and air pollution already make traveling on or living adjacent to I-81 a hazard. Additional lanes will only make the situation worse.

In addition to increased congestion and air pollution, there is the safety issue. Motorists are at a distinct disadvantage in auto/truck collisions. Last year more than 5,000 people died in these accidents and more than 100,000 were injured. That’s an average of more than 13 people killed every day or the equivalent of thirty loaded 737 jetliners crashing annually.     

In light of health and safety hazards, the PA State Transportation Commission should consider the study conducted by Reebie Associates. When faced with a proposed expansion of its portion of I-81 from four to eight-lanes (with four of the eight lanes dedicated to trucks), the Commonwealth of Virginia hired Reebie to determine the amount of truck traffic that could be diverted from the highway to the parallel rail line. The resulting study found that an initial investment of between $2.5 and $2.8 billion along the entire corridor could divert between 670,000 and 720,000 truck loads annually.It would require $13 to $15 billion of highway investment to achieve the same results. 

Investing in highways to accommodate more truck traffic at a time when the nation needs to reduce its oil consumption is inconsistent with today’s reality. Rather than recommending public investment in highways, states should be studying ways to pool state and federal funds to shore up the railway system. None of the states along the I-81 Corridor or the Norfolk Southern Railroad can afford the investment needed without federal assistance, not only for funding needed, but also for the legislative support that will be required to make that funding available.

Larry Joyce serves as co-chair of the Chapter's transportation and land use committe.

Published November 2005