11/6 Interstate 81 closure highlights importance of VDOT detour plans

Published: Nov. 20, 2023 at 7:44 PM EST
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HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) - Back on Nov. 6, a tractor-trailer fire on Interstate 81 caused a lengthy closure and major problems near Exit 251 in Rockingham County. The closure led to congestion on nearby primary and secondary roads in the area as traffic was redirected.

The Virginia Department of Transportation has closure and detour plans for incidents on I-81 that outline which local roads will have to take on the burden of interstate traffic.

“In this case, we had a tractor-trailer fire with a very serious hazmat situation between exits 251 and 257. So our traffic operations folks can go straight to a book that they have that says ‘We’re going to be detouring traffic onto Route 11 at exits 251 and 257. That sounds simple, but you do have roughly 50,000 plus vehicles a day that run Interstate 81, and Route 11 just can’t handle it. So inevitably, there are going to be some folks that don’t follow the detour, they follow their GPS and bleed off onto some of these secondary roads,” said VDOT Staunton District Communication Specialist Ken Slack.

VDOT encourages drivers to follow detour routes rather than looking for their own shortcuts or following their GPS.

“Follow those detour routes because that is the best way to keep traffic at least moving, moving slowly no doubt but it is better than trying to go off on some of these secondary roads and perhaps getting turned around or maybe causing some other problems for folks that live in those areas,” said Slack.

Slack said that when there is a serious hazmat situation like the one on November 6 and I-81 is closed for a lengthy amount of time VDOT takes additional steps to manage traffic.

“That’s when we start offering some alternative routes through our 511 system, the variable message boards, and our social media we were offering some alternatives to folks using Route 33 and Route 340, Route 42 for example, some different ways that people can go but still use primary roads rather than secondary roads, the backroads,” said Slack.

Slack says VDOT does conduct after-action reviews in the aftermath of incidents like the recent closure to work with all involved agencies to evaluate the response to these types of incidents.

“We try to get better, we try to learn a little bit each time we have one of these types of incidents so that we can plan for the unplannable so to speak. There are lots of things that we have done over the years to try to improve our response and traffic management during an incident,” he said.

Some of these responses include the addition of coordinated traffic signals that will favor detoured vehicles during an incident and the 81 Trip Program which uses heavy-duty wreckers to quickly clear crashed tractor-trailers off of the interstate.