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I-81 improvements: Added lane in Roanoke, Botetourt counties in next wave

Funding approved for multiple projects just before crash-filled weekend

When it comes to Interstate 81 improvements, Roanoke and Botetourt counties remain front and center.

On Thursday, the Commonwealth Transportation Board, after receiving recommendations from the Interstate 81 Advisory Committee, approved funding for a series of projects that will add a third lane both northbound and southbound from Exit 137 to Exit 150.

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The decision puts the projects, and others affecting southwest Virginia, in the next wave of improvements that will hit the construction phase.

The news came just before a particularly hectic weekend, during which two tractor-trailers caught fire in separate incidents, causing backups on I-81 for miles Sunday.

"The last two weekends have been very difficult for travel," Virginia State Police Sgt. Rick Garletts said.

Troopers responded to 13 crashes on I-81 on Sunday alone.

"I don't want to blame this totally on the tractor-trailers but it seems like there's been a lot of them having troubles," Garletts said.

The project poised to add a lane in the Roanoke Valley is expected to cost nearly $250 million. The new gas tax will help pay for the improvements.

"Authorizing these funds is the next step of Interstate 81 improvements in Virginia," Virginia Department of Transportation spokesman Jason Bond said.

He said there's no timeline for construction right now, but VDOT expects to know more in 2020.

"Now that the funding has been authorized, we can move forward and develop a schedule. We expect to have a schedule sometime next year of when these projects could actually go to construction," Bond said.

Engineers will have to figure out how they'll widen the road. There are bridges to cross and earth to move.

The list for the 31 improvement projects in the next wave includes the following:

Roanoke County, partially funded:
-An added lane in both directions from Exit 137 to Exit 150 (the stretch from mile marker 141 to 143 had already received funding)
Total cost: $242,195,241

Botetourt County:
-Extending lanes at the Troutville Rest Area
Total cost: $10,042,040

Rockbridge County:
-Extending the on-ramp southbound at exit 205
Total cost: $3,483,323

Wythe County and Wytheville:
-Extending on-ramp northbound at mile marker 67.3
-Extending off-ramp and loop northbound at mile marker 73
-Extending off-ramp southbound at mile marker 84.3
Total cost: $28,923,206

Other improvements, separate from the projects under the purview of the advisory committee, are already done or have schedules in place.

Flashing chevrons have already been installed in Botetourt County from mile marker 176 to 172 and in Pulaski County at mile marker 88.

An acceleration lane in Pulaski County northbound near Exit 89 is scheduled to be ready in the spring of next year.

One large remaining project that doesn't have funding approved includes adding a northbound lane in the New River Valley, as the original plans released more than a year ago show.

The plans call for widening northbound from Exit 119 to the already-approved extra lane beginning at Exit 137. Bond said the goal is to get to the design phase for that project in 2023.