Interstate 81: Frustrations and Solutions

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STAUNTON, Va. (WHSV) — Tens of thousands of drivers depend on Interstate 81 in Virginia to get to the places they need to be.

But over the past few years, drivers have noticed a dramatic change with more congestion.

"The past two years is the worst I've ever seen it," said Michelle Keplinger. "I've missed [...] doctors appointments. I was late for work many times."

"It is starting to feel [like] I-95," said Ed Dingman.

Indeed, during the past five years, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) reports a 12 percent increase in the amount of traffic along I-81 in the City of Harrisonburg. The amount of delays impacting drivers — whether it be from crashes, construction or bad weather — has increased 55 percent since 2013, according to data provided by the agency.

"We're certainly aware of the increased traffic, both cars and trucks," said Ken Slack with the Staunton district of VDOT. "Over the past several years, we've been putting more and more focus on our response to incidents on the interstate, working with state police, fire and rescue, to get travel lanes open as quickly as possible when there is an accident or a disabled vehicle or something of that nature."

But the issues surrounding I-81 are also catching the attention of elected leaders.

Delegate Steve Landes, representing the 25th district in the Virginia House, said talks about improving the interstate are gaining traction in the General Assembly.

"What really has made it a front burner issue is just the fact that the traffic has increased exponentially," said Landes.

A Twitter page, @ Make81Safe, was recently created by delegates from the valley.

In 2014, Landes introduced a budget item directing VDOT to develop a list of improvements needed for the interstate.

Over the next several years, several projects are in the works, including reconfiguring ramps, improving interchanges and extending acceleration lanes for trucks.

But one improvement many people would like to see is the addition of a third lane.

"Widening along parts of 81, I think, is realistic. Widening the corridor, I think that's a longer range goal. I'm not sure I would live to see Interstate 81 three-laned or four-laned," said Landes. "But, for instance, through Harrisonburg, you could see three or four lanes eventually."

While it is possible to widen the interstate, it would come with a big price tag. VDOT estimates for every mile of pavement, it would cost between $10-$15 million — per direction. For interchanges, it would cost $30-50 million.

For now, Landes said the goal is to find the money to do what needs to be done.

"One of the things I think we're going to talk about this session is what can the Congress and the President do for our interstate system? It's not just Interstate 81. You talk to folks along 64, on 95, 85 in Virginia or 77, everybody says there needs to be improvements," said Landes.

Landes also hopes to get support from Governor-elect Northam on the effort to improve Interstate 81.

Below are a list of projects planned or underway by VDOT to help alleviate traffic along Interstate 81. "FY" means "fiscal year," the period of time the government uses for accounting purposes. For example, FY 2017 = October 2016 - September 2017.