The future of I-81: Everything that's wrong with our biggest highway, and how to fix it

It won't be cheap but officials are hoping for more lanes, better truck parking

ROANOKE, Va. – Crash after crash. Backup for miles. It's the reality many drivers face traveling Interstate 81.

"It's just a lot of traffic. It really backs up in a heartbeat," said John Mason, a Fairlawn resident. 

"There's a lot of congestion on the interstate, no matter what time of the day," said Taylor Landreth, a Catawba resident. 

I-81 is the longest interstate in Virginia, at 325 miles, and it has issues. We rode along with law enforcement to see what barriers they face trying to keep the road safe. 

"This shoulder is not very wide if you can imagine two vehicles stopped. There's very little room for error," said Virginia State Police Sgt. Michael Mavredes.

Mavredes has served in the Roanoke County area for five years. He says in that span of time, he has seen crashes on the 81 corridor increase. Between Jan. 1 and Nov. 1 of this year, there have been 236 reportable crashes on the stretch covering Roanoke County and the city of Salem. That accounts for 56 injuries and three deaths.

Not only is the 81 corridor crash-prone... 

"Just the amount of traffic...sometimes it's hard to catch up to a violator's vehicle because of the amount of traffic," said Mavredes.

So, what are the main interstate issues and how do we fix them? That's what a new study from VDOT and Virginia's transportation secretary found. Unlike other interstates where rush hour traffic is the main culprit, 81's issues include...

"Safety, congestion, reliability are really the factors driving this process," said Shannon Valentine, secretary of transportation.

Here are some solutions:

  • Changeable message signs and cameras.
  • Better emergency clearance equipment.
  • Detour route improvements.
  • More semi-truck parking. 

The estimated cost is $40 million. 

Then we move to capital improvements. The study suggests a package of about $2 billion. The Salem district would get $882 million of that.

Recommended improvements include:

  • Extending acceleration and deceleration lanes.
  • Curve improvements.
  • Adding a lane between Christiansburg and Roanoke. 

But how do we pay for it? The statewide study focused on two possible funding options -- taxes and tolls. Increasing the sales and fuel taxes along the corridor are one thought. Tolls on frequent 81 travelers in regular cars and commercial vehicles is another. The idea of tolls for tractor-trailers does not sit well with Dale Bennett, president and CEO of the Virginia Trucking Association. 

"Trucking companies cannot afford to absorb that toll and we, in turn, will be forced to have to pass it along. So in essence, it's going to end up having an impact on the price of goods that we use every day," said Bennett.

I-81 is one of the top trucking routes in the U.S., a main link between southern economic hubs and northeast markets.

"I-81 is a critical economic corridor for this region and for the commonwealth," said Valentine.

Valentine says economic impact did play a part in the study. VDOT believes the $2 billion improvement package will generate almost $3.5 billion in additional economic output, like jobs and retail and hotel revenue.

Still, adding a toll to 81 is a touchy subject.

"Tolls -- no. I'm not a fan of tolls," said Sam Catalano, a North Carolina resident. 

Once finalized, the study will be presented to the General Assembly when the session begins next year.