I-81 committee holds first meeting to address changes to 'killer' highway

With funding secured, decisions about which projects to prioritize come next

By Tommy Lopez - Weekend Anchor / Reporter

LEXINGTON, Va. - The debate over improvements to Interstate 81 continued Tuesday.

The Interstate 81 Advisory Committee held its first meeting inside the Hampton Inn in Lexington, taking the first steps toward deciding which projects will get the green light first and how long we’ll wait to see construction.

It was standing room only as dozens of people packed into the hotel conference room, some to simply observe and others to comment.

“I’ve lived here for 43 years, and during that period of time, I-81 has gone from a safe and pleasant highway to one that I consider a killer. I avoid going on I-81,” said Elizabeth Harralson, who lives in Rockbridge County.

With a funding plan now in place and access to hundreds of millions of dollars, the committee, comprised of transportation officials and lawmakers, needs to make decisions.

"I think they're incredibly difficult. You're talking about project readiness. You're talking about project efficacy, project safety, environmental concerns," said Virginia Del. Chris Hurst, (D) - Blacksburg. "It is going to be a complicated process. That's why we're having these meetings and want them to be open to the public." 

Local lawmakers said they want to prioritize sections in the New River and Roanoke valleys because there are a high number of commuters there.

The state recommendations, which came after a public comment period, will be the committee's baseline. Members said the three remaining meetings this year will have more time for public comment.

“I think the first meeting went very well. I’m surprised at the turnout," said Del. Terry Austin, (R) - Botetourt. "I’m really glad that people take enough interest to be here. They see it as a priority. I think there’s a lot of excitement.”

It won't just be this committee deciding the future of I-81.

"The public input is extremely important. In my district, it goes from roughly Radford to Daleville, is probably the largest in terms of the number of problems we've had," said Virginia Sen. John Edwards, (D) - Roanoke.

Committee members said construction could begin on the first projects in a year to a year and a half, but the design phase alone on some sections of the road are expected to take two to three years.

The committee is scheduled to meet three more times this year and is set to brief the Virginia General Assembly on its progress in December.

Not all the I-81 improvement projects fall under this committee, as some have other funding sources, and some of those projects will start as early as this fall.

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