On March 2, 2012, I headed out to Blacksburg like I have so many times.
I was going to have lunch with a friend and then go to a business meeting, and finally I was going to take the back way to Catawba and meet my wife and some friends for dinner at the Home Place.
The ordeal that I faced getting too and from Blacksburg completely changed the plans for the day. It gave me lots of time to wonder whether my family would have even ended up living in Roanoke, if I had found traffic this bad on my first visits to the valley.
Twenty-three years ago in the spring of 1989, our family made the decision to move to the Roanoke Valley in Southwest Virginia. With deep roots in North Carolina, we had been drawn back the United States not quite two years earlier after sixteen years in Canada.
Our first stop in the US after Canada was Columbia, Maryland where we moved in August of 1987. It turned out to not be the spot for us. After most of a year covering Virginia higher education for Apple, I was given the opportunity to pick where I wanted to live.
Most of that first year covering higher education was spent in Blacksburg. I stayed so much in what was then the Blacksburg Marriott, that they pretty well kept the same room for me all the time. During the months that I visited Virginia schools, I got a pretty good look at the state. Roanoke impressed me most of all the options for a place to live. It didn't take long to convince our whole family that Roanoke was the place for us.
Our children ended up going to Oak Grove Elementary, Hidden Valley Middle School, Cave Spring High School. We also got to experience the pleasure of having children at the Roanoke Valley Governor's School. There weren't many Roanoke Valley opportunities that our children missed from hockey and girls soccer to riding ponies and dancing with Ardell Stone. I even took my son to hear Bob Dylan at the Civic Center. Many times we enjoyed the Grandin Theatre.
While no place is perfect, Southwest Roanoke County turned out to be a really good place for us to raise our family. Like several other people that I knew, I managed to get promoted to the point that I was able to keep the privilege of living in Roanoke instead of having to move.
I truly considered it a privilege to stay in Roanoke because I often got very close looks at many other urban centers which did not look like nice places to raise a family.
Also like many others who called Roanoke home, most weeks I left Roanoke on Monday and was gone for the much of the week.
Still Roanoke was a fine location even when I ended up having people working in North Carolina who reported to me. Roanoke was centrally enough located that I used to have meetings at Hidden Valley Country Club. My team covered higher education from Pennsylvania to North Carolina. Roanoke was a convenient, inexpensive location for meetings and getting to Roanoke was rarely a problem in the early nineties.
In the mid-ninties, I took a different position at Apple. I spent a lot of my time from 1996 through 2005 commuting up Interstate 81 to Reston, Virginia where I managed Apple's federal business. After Apple I did a variety of things relating to the federal market and still kept the Roanoke to Reston commute.
It turns out Interstate 81 has defined a huge portion of my life even before my career with Apple. I made trips up and down 81 when the highway was being built during the late sixties and early seventies when I was in college in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
In forty-five years I have seen Interstate 81 go from being a reliable way to get from one place to another to a nightmare for travelers.
In the summer of 2006 I took courses in Hickory, North Carolina. I would leave on a Friday afternoon, and almost every trip I had to get off Interstate 81 and use back roads to make it to North Carolina.
Now the highway is even worse. A trip on Interstate 81 either north or south of Roanoke is often an ordeal for those on the road and those waiting for I81 travelers. As I found on my March 2, trip, Highway 460 can be as bad or worse.
That March 2, trip turned into a nightmare. My roundtrip from Roanoke to Blacksburg took over three hours and involved using shortcuts that no through traveler would know. Had I not taken those shortcuts, I suspect my trip to Blacksburg and back would have taken four hours.
We now spend much of our time on the Carolina coast so we haven't kept up to date with the blasting schedule for construction on Interstate 81. We're more like the people traveling down Interstate 81 from other states who have no clue what a mess they will find between Roanoke and Blacksburg.
On March 2, I left home at 11:30 AM and got on I81 at the Salem College exit. Seconds after getting on the highway, I saw a sign that Interstate 81 was closed for blasting. I also saw a VDOT sign recommending that I not get off of I81 at the last Salem exit because of congestion. Probably for the last time in my life, I trusted what the VDOT sign said and waited for the Dixie Caverns exit where VDOT wanted me to leave 81. As a side note, traffic when I got on 81 going north was already stop and go because of an accident north of Roanoke.
Waiting was the operative word, since it took me forty-five minutes to go the eight miles or so to the Dixie Caverns exit. Once there, I thought perhaps I might make it to Blacksburg by 1:00 PM. However, not far after Shawsville, Route 460 stopped moving. As it crept along, I finally saw Route 636 (Seneca Hollow Road) and decided to take it and some other back roads through the Ellett Valley to Blacksburg.
At about ten minutes to one, I was getting ready to turn up the mountain to Blacksburg, and in the distance I saw a rail crossing close and several Norfolk Southern locomotives go across the road. I knew that any hope making it to Blacksburg by one o'clock was gone. After waiting for the long line of empty coal cars to pass, I continued to Blacksburg and stopped at Our Daily Bread for lunch. It was ten minutes after one. My trip from Roanoke had taken an hour and forty minutes.
Of course I had missed the 12:30 lunch with my friend. I had a nice lunch at Our Daily Bread, and headed over to the Corporate Research Center for my meeting. At 3:30 PM, my meeting was finished, and I pulled onto 460E and headed back towards Interstate 81. Just before I got on Interstate 81, I saw a sign that there was congestion on the highway between mile markers 130 and 139.
It was then I made the fateful decision to take 460 back to Roanoke. An hour and ten minutes later, I was sitting in barely moving traffic still miles from Salem. When I finally got close enough to Salem to take the road over to Greenhill Park and then Riverside Drive, I thought I might make it home by 5:00 PM. I was wrong. Riverside Drive finally slowed to a crawl as many other residents were also taking my shortcut.
It was just a few minutes after five o'clock when I pulled into our driveway. It had taken me an hour and thirty-five minutes to get back by way of 460. The total round trip to Blacksburg was three hours and fifteen minutes. Back before Interstate 81 became a nightmare, I made the trip of 235 miles to Reston, Virginia many times in three hours and thirty minutes.
For several months in 2006, I worked in the Corporate Research Center. Even then it was rare that it took me more than forty minutes to drive the 35 miles from our Roanoke home to Blacksburg.
My March 2, trip almost makes me laugh when I think back to the debates about the Smart Road connector shaving five or ten minutes off a trip to Blacksburg from Roanoke.
Had the traffic been this bad when we moved to Roanoke, I would have never been as successful in my job which depended on frequent road trips to various universities and colleges from Pennsylvania to North Carolina.
As I think about the challenges of using Roanoke as a homebase, it is pretty clear that someone in a job like my the one I had with Apple with would be crazy to locate in Roanoke in 2012.
Interstate 81 is no longer a dependable route for a business person. The air travel options out of Roanoke worsened during my career, and I doubt they have improved since I stopped flying out of Roanoke. I feel fortunate that my last Roanoke to California air trip was in 2003.
The sad thing to me is that the piecemeal efforts of VDOT are actually bringing more immediate harm than any possible future good can hope to balance. I drove through the similar construction project in Lexington for years. The waits were not nearly as bad as they are in this current project, and now that the Lexington project is finished, I still hardly see a difference in Lexington traffic.
Unless the Virginia House can shift its focus from trying to contol the private lives of women to solving real problems, the traffic on Interstate 81 will strangle southwest Virginia. Interstate 81 doesn't need just a few climbing lanes, it needs more lanes period.
Since 2004, I have been driving south on a regular basis from Roanoke to Emerald Isle. I have watched as North Carolina has upgraded many roads in those six years.
The North Carolina portion of my trip improves every year. My last trip of 320 miles from the beach took just six hours including a stop for lunch and two other stops. While gas is more expensive in North Carolina, I will pay a few cents more per gallon any day rather than go through what I went through travelling between Roanoke and Blacksburg on March 2.
While I am now a registered voter in North Carolina and can do little to persuade Virginia's obstinate politicians, I hope my friends in Roanoke can find a solution to their traffic mess. Strangulation by traffic is not a pretty sight.
Southwest Virginia deserves a better fate.