Small cost, big impact upgrades planned for dangerous stretch of I-81

Two-mile stretch in Botetourt County near Buchanan one of most crash prone

BUCHANAN, Va. – More upgrades are on the way for one of the most dangerous sections of Interstate 81. This is separate from the large-scale project looking at I-81 from end to end, but local leaders still hope it packs a punch.

The section of I-81 through Botetourt County near the town of Buchanan has one of the highest crash rates along the I-81 corridor and that is because of the curvy nature of this section of the road. The Virginia Department of Transportation wants to make simple improvements like closing exit 167 among other things to try to make the stretch of road safer.

The seven stomach-dropping curves along I-81 near Buchanan are the root of the problem and VDOT is tackling them head on.

"They're low cost monetarily, high value for trying to reduce crashes along this segment of I-81," VDOT Spokesman Jason Bond said.

Tuesday night the department took feedback on planned upgrades on southbound I-81. Over a recent two-year period, there were 52 crashes in the two-mile stretch and half of them were caused by drivers failing to navigate the curves. It ended up with the drivers running off the road and causing major headaches in the process.

"That's what we're really looking at trying to prevent, looking at some low-cost ways to enhance safety there by preventing those run off the road type crashes," Bond said. "Nineteen of the crashes were also during wet conditions. "

It's for those reasons why VDOT is putting $8 million toward widening shoulders, adding materials to the pavement to increase traction, and adding reflecting road markings. The plan would also remove the exit 167 off ramp from the southbound lanes, which sees a nominal amount of vehicles per day compared to other exits. Currently, there is a southbound exit and a northbound on-ramp and there are full interchanges within close proximity in either direction.

"That has been a disaster for years," Botetourt County resident Sheila Bankert said. "Because when you pull off of it to go into Buchanan, you can't see what's coming from the right."

The project is targeted on direct cause and effect, much like the flashing LED chevron signs that were installed illuminating the curves a few years ago. Every time Botetourt County Fire and EMS responds to crashes on I-81, they're adding an extra level of risk just by operating on the interstate. So fewer crashes leads to reduced risk and responders are seeing a change.

"The subtleties have made a difference, particularly things like the LED signs, while significant in visual appearance, it's definitely changed the matrix to a degree," Botetourt County Fire and EMS Chief Jason Ferguson said.

At the end of the day, it's all about the numbers and they don't lie, the small changes make a big difference.

"We've seen some success, 55 percent reduction in crash rate on the northbound side shows that it does have some impact on safety and that's what we're trying to recreate on the southbound side as well," Bond said.

VDOT is taking feedback on the project through February 15. It's set to begin in Summer 2020 and expected to finish in late 2021.

About the Author: