Third lane, other changes outlined in new potential plans for I-81

Drivers get a look at specific possibilities for the interstate

By Tommy Lopez - Weekend Anchor / Reporter

SALEM, Va. - There are new details on possible changes coming to Interstate 81 in Virginia.

State agencies shared plans with 10 News on Tuesday that give specific information on improvements still in the planning stages for southwest Virginia. There are now potential locations for an additional lane.

The public had the opportunity to attend a meeting Tuesday in Salem where leaders were to explain the new details. The agencies will conduct another comment period, finalize an ongoing study and present plans to the General Assembly ahead of next year’s session, in order to follow guidelines detailed in legislation passed this year.

A third lane
New maps and descriptions from the Virginia Department of Transportation show potential plans for a third lane going from Christiansburg to Troutville for northbound traffic and from southwestern Roanoke County to Troutville for southbound lanes. Specifically, the additional lane would be from mile marker 117 to 152 northbound and from mile marker 152 to 132 southbound.

On and offramps 
There’s also new information about where extended on and offramps may go. There are many locations in Roanoke County, Salem and Roanoke, as well as in Botetourt and Rockbridge counties. In the Roanoke Valley, the extensions will go near exits 132, 137-140, 140-143 and 149.

Other improvements 
The new plans call for other improvements like changeable message signs, cameras and improving truck parking and response times for crashes and stranded drivers.

The proposals also included changes to detour routes, including traffic signal upgrades to Route 460, a common secondary road for drivers when there are delays on I-81.

VDOT spokesman Jason Bond told 10 News the plans reflect some of the unique aspects of the interstate, like crashes having more of an impact on delays than for other roads in Virginia.

“It's not a set time every day that we see congestion, so that makes it more challenging to address some of the congestion issues on 81,” he said.

Revenue sources
New data shows $3 billion is needed for these improvements. There are new numbers on how tolls and taxes could help.

A toll for 18-wheelers is at the top of the list. State agencies have not decided on an amount for the toll, but they have now estimated that it would bring in $50 million to $200 million per year. It would be “open road tolling,” meaning trucks with a pass would not have to stop at a tollbooth.

Two proposed taxes are still being considered. They’re regional and would only impact people in counties along the interstate. It’s estimated a gas tax would mean $60 million to $70 million in revenue each year for Virginia, and a retail sales tax would bring in $90 million to $100 million a year.

Those tolls and taxes could potentially give Virginia $370 million per year. The state agencies have not decided on their final recommendations for the use of tolls.

“(The tolls and taxes) are a part of the discussion and people will see some of those ideas of how to pay for those improvements tonight,” Bond said ahead of Tuesday’s meeting.

Leaders have eliminated an HOT, or high-occupancy toll lane, from consideration. That plan would add a toll-only lane that any vehicle could decide to enter, for which they’d pay a fee. The agencies said there’s not enough traffic to warrant that addition and it wouldn’t bring in enough money to cover its cost.

There is no discussion on a toll for all vehicles, as the legislation passed excludes that from consideration.

Driver comments
There are new details on the comments people have submitted. More than 1,000 people gave suggestions this summer on how they’d like to see Interstate 81 improved.

The agencies broke down the comments into three main categories: congestion, safety and policy. About 25 percent of the comments about policy were in support of truck tolls, while 18 percent were opposed to all tolls.

What’s next
Bond said the main purpose behind Tuesday’s meeting in Salem was to explain the progress of the plans to the public. The current comment period, which is the second of three for the project, lasts through Sept. 30.

The next step for the agencies will be to finalize plans and prioritize what improvements will benefit drivers the most before they present their work to lawmakers.

The goal of the project is to ease congestion and improve safety.

I-81 background
Many local leaders along the interstate have called for the state to make changes. Industry leaders have raised questions over the impact a toll on heavy commercial vehicles would have, including the risk of hurting local businesses.

Others have wondered whether trucks would clog secondary roads if they choose to avoid the interstate.

According to VDOT, up to 40 percent of I-81's traffic is semitrailers and almost half of statewide truck traffic runs along I-81. About a fifth of crashes on I-81 involve a heavy truck.

Freight carried on I-81 in Virginia is worth $312 billion each year, and by 2025, 78 million tons will be moved on I-81 in the commonwealth, according to VDOT. The interstate has carried 11.7 million truck trips, which is 40 percent of the state’s truck traffic

According to VDOT, there were 11,000 crashes during the past five years on I-81, and each year 30 crashes block the road for at least six hours.

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