Common complaints about a popular U.S. interstate range from truck traffic to crashes and safety. But there’s a multi-billion dollar plan that will make it better for everyone.
Ivan Loya drives Interstate 81 for work and calls it “pretty intense,” saying sometimes he doesn’t feel safe.
“We definitely need, I don’t know, more lanes or something,” Loya said.
Taylor Blackwell drives the interstate every day, and said the road construction is the worst part of it.
“Safety-wise on this interstate is, I guess, ridiculous. When it comes to road construction, it puts a damper on traffic,” said Blackwell, who drives a tow truck for Collins Towing and Recovery.
But the interstate needs the current construction. Interstate 81 hasn’t had significant improvements since it was built in the ‘50s. Since then, there has been increased traffic, vehicle sizes and more trucks hauling freight. In 2018, VDOT started the I-81 Corridor Improvement Plan to make it more reliable and safer.
We took your questions and complaints about Interstate 81 to the Virginia Department of Transportation. We previously asked what your issues with the interstate were, and you said the trucks, speeding and enforcement and a need for more lanes.
Dave Covington works for VDOT and said the top complaint he hears is safety, “I think a lot of people are scared to drive on I-81. I know people personally that refuse to drive on I-81.”
Covington oversees the entire I-81 construction project -- that’s $2.7 billion.
“We are not making improvements to the entirety of the interstate. The cost of that is very significant, probably on the order of magnitude of more than $20 billion. So we have gone to great lengths to try to maximize the efficiency of what we’re doing with the investment that we do have,” said Covington, who admits it’s really just a drop in the bucket.
“I think the smart thing is that we did look at data. We used data to develop the solutions,” Covington said. “The reason that is smart is that we can leverage every dollar to look at the most problematic areas and address those areas, rather than just randomly going out and replacing bridges or widening specific sections. So, we looked at crash data; we look at congestion data so that we know that we’re making a good investment with taxpayer dollars.”
Part of the solution is widening 99 miles of interstate from two lanes to three lanes, including all of Interstate 81 from Christiansburg to Troutville.
“For corridor widening projects, it really makes sense to have a third lane for additional capacity. People can spread out a little bit more. Drivers feel more comfortable because they’ve got a little more space, and they’re not jammed up to the car in front of them or beside them. We also will have full-width shoulders, so that if people have an emergency, they can exit the roadway in a safe way,” said Covington.
But they’ve found ways to cut costs by doing work in the median.
“It saves money because right-of-way is extremely expensive. It also reduces our environmental footprint. We want to keep our projects as compact as possible so that we’re really getting the best return on investment,” Covington said.
Two things make Interstate 81 unique: The mountains and curves, and the huge number of trucks.
“We do tend to see crashes that maybe wouldn’t have happened elsewhere, and that’s what we’re trying to alleviate. Because it is difficult, it is heartbreaking when there are fatalities,” Covington said. “This investment is really driven to drive down the number of crashes that we’re seeing.”
VDOT added 30 digital message board and more than 50 cameras to see crashes and respond quicker, along with smart signals on roads that run parallel to Interstate 81 to let traffic through if everyone starts getting off the interstate because of a crash.
“We can have 10, 12, 15-mile backups if there are severe crashes, and that’s what we’re trying to prevent. We’re enhancing the safety, reducing the congestion, improving our alternative routes,” Covington said. “We don’t want the traffic backing up on the interstate. That creates a safety problem in and of itself. Simply because stopped traffic on the interstates is never, never a good thing.”
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