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I-81 coalition might do what Marylanders couldn't

November 16, 2008|By TIM ROWLAND

Credit the nation's financial ruins for this: The dozen-odd-mile stretch on Interstate 81 through Maryland is not quite the hairy scary free-for-all it was before diesel prices forced trucks to slow down and declining freight took a lot of them off the highway altogether.

Pamplona has its running of the bulls; we had our running of the tractor trailers. Negotiating an exit while being walled in on three sides by big rigs running at better than 70 mph can make for quite a sport.

Interstate 81 has long been Maryland's forgotten interstate, receiving attention only when escalating highway fatalities and injuries all but required it.

This week the state announced another patch, a $3.4 million upgrade of the I-70/I-81 interchange that is long overdue. Prior to that, the state's answer to tight corners was to erect a sign with a graphic of a truck tipping over.

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So we have that.

But the better news was the formation of an I-81 coalition, which will urge the feds to do what the state won't: Stop treating I-81 as a poor second sister to the Eastern Seaboard's Interstate 95.

The coalition includes members from five states, from New York to Tennessee, and will work for federal funding, as well as making the highway more user-friendly for everyday drivers through emergency alerts and better technology.

Perhaps two decades ago, truckers discovered that I-81 was a relatively uncrowded answer to I-95 for freight moving up and down the East Coast. Once discovered, of course, it was no longer uncrowded. Sometimes, it seemed, trucks outnumbered cars two-to-one.

While Pennsylvania and West Virginia have been making plans for adding another lane in each direction, Maryland has contented itself with half-hearted studies, a bone tossed to those who feared that I-81 would eventually be three lanes from Harrisburg, Pa., to Harrisonburg, Va., with the exception of an embarrassing and dangerous bottleneck through the Free (for all) State.

But times, of course, are changing. A coalition to promote faster, freer motor vehicle traffic today almost seems akin to a coalition in 1890 for the promotion of stovepipe hats.

As fuel prices decline, it will be interesting to see whether American memories can hang onto three hastily learned lessons: It is possible to drive less by consolidating trips, slowing down a bit saves gas and four-wheel-drive is not a requirement to scale the drive-up window at Wendy's.

I get the sense that $2 gas may be a boon for the family vacation, but that for everyday driving, the sting - and memory - of $4 gas may encourage ongoing automobile downsizing and sensible driving.

Correspondingly, the financial crisis has had the odd side-effect of encouraging the type of behavior we should have beenn practicing all along: Acting responsibly with our money ... you remember, save for the future, don't spend it if you don't have it, all those good things.

(Reacting with alarm to this news, the ever-helpful Treasury Department announced this week that it would use federal bailout funds to help consumers - borrow more money. Oy.)

In more positive news, the Interstate 81 coalition seems aware that our future rests not only in the increase of concrete, but in a decrease in the vehicles that run on top of it. Managing and reducing truck traffic is mentioned as a priority.

I hope that means an increase in rail freight and not just a sign pointing existing trucks to another road. Similarly, emergency alerts are helpful, but so would efforts aimed at decreasing traffic through carpooling and heightened awareness of public transit.

As the Maryland Highway Department belatedly learned, a sign showing a truck with the wheels coming off simply isn't enough. Highway improvement means not only new construction, but new driving habits, better driving efficiencies and thoughtful highway management.

Eventually, I suppose, things will return to some semblance of economic normalcy. But if we don't learn some permanent lessons from our present miseries, this crisis will have been wasted.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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