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Area legislators say proposed six-lane I-81 is a way off

A tractor trailer travels southbound on Interstate 81 outside the Stephens City weigh station recently. Rich Cooley/Daily (Buy photo)

By Joe Beck

A proposed widening of Interstate 81 south of Winchester north to Carlisle, Pa., has received a mixed reaction from a pair of Northern Shenandoah Valley lawmakers.

Del. C. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, endorsed the idea Monday of expanding I-81 to six lanes as a way of easing thickened traffic congestion, but State Sen. Jill Vogel, said new improvements should emphasize better bridges, truck climbing lanes and entrance and exits on the road.

Legislators participating in the Quad State Legislative Conference in Waynesboro, Pa., last week unanimously approved a resolution asking Congress for money to widen I-81 to six lanes through southern Frederick County northward.

The Quad State gathering is open to legislators from Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Delaware, although no one from Virginia attended last week's conference.

Gilbert co-chairs the I-81 caucus in the General Assembly, a collection of delegates and senators from districts linked together by interstate.

He said the Virginia Department of Transportation typically exerts the greatest influence over when, where and how road projects are built, but federal oversight comes into play with I-81.

"This is the first I've heard of anybody asking the federal government for permission along those lines," Gilbert said of funding request.

Vogel called it "unlikely" that Congress will approve a widening anytime soon, "and I'm sure different localities will view it differently."

"I absolutely do believe we need improvements on I-81," Vogel said. "It is high time. It's not uncommon to have one accident that backs up traffic for one hour."

Gilbert called the Quad State proposal "increasingly consistent with what we've asked should be done in the past."

He said area legislators have sought a "measured" approach to widening and been wary of more extensive proposals that would widen I-81 to 10 or 12 lanes.

A widening project on such a scale would threaten farms, homes, businesses and battlefields along the route, Gilbert said.

"We obviously have to build sufficient highway capacity to address safety concerns, especially with how congested (I-81) becomes. Maybe a superhighway goes too far. Six lanes instead of four are pretty much what we've been trying to get them to do."

Gilbert added that he didn't think the Quad State resolution would make much difference in determining future improvements on I-81. He said he had not been aware of the meeting when it was held.

"I don't know how practical they are as far as accomplishing anything," Gilbert said of multi-state legislative conferences. "Those things just end up being meetings where nothing ever gets done. We try to focus on things that achieve outcomes."

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com

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