Sinkhole shuts down part of I-81

Lawrence Combs, a foreman for Carroll Construction Company, of Winchester, coats a section of pavement with tar to prepare for a layer of asphalt in the final stages of repairing a sinkhole in the northbound lane of Interstate 81 south of the Woodstock exit on Monday. Rich Cooley/Daily
Tractor trailers form a line along Old Valley Pike near Red Banks north of Mount Jackson during the traffic backup Monday. Rich Cooley/Daily
Truck drivers chat while traffic is at a standstill along U.S. 11 at Meems Bottom south of Mount Jackson on Monday. Rich Cooley/Daily
A state trooper directs traffic around the scene of a crash on Old Valley Pike and Jess Sine Road north of Woodstock Monday morning. I-81 northbound traffic was detoured due to a sinkhole north of Woodstock. Rich Cooley/Daily

A sinkhole estimated at 20 feet deep closed one or both lanes of northbound traffic on Interstate 81 south of Woodstock for about 24 hours Sunday and Monday and caused a traffic jam of up to 13 miles.

The Virginia Department of Transportation reported that state police conducted a slow roll to begin reopening the road at about 2:45 p.m.

VDOT officials said a contractor filled in the sinkhole for much of Monday and topped it off with new asphalt that required a few hours to cool.

Cliff Balderson, VDOT residency administrator in Edinburg, said he was notified of the appearance of the sinkhole at about 3 p.m. Sunday. One lane of the road was closed in the afternoon and both lanes closed at midnight as efforts to refill the hole began.

Balderson said the sinkhole was discovered by a contractor hired by VDOT to routinely patrol the road and look for anything that might interfere with safe travel.

No injuries or accidents related to the hole were reported.

“The hole that I saw, if somebody would have hit it, it wouldn’t have been good,” Balderson said.

The hole, which was about a lane and a half wide, led VDOT to detour traffic off of I-81 at exit 277 near Bowmans Crossing onto Va. 614, eastbound to U.S. 11, northbound to Va. 651 westbound and back onto I-81 northbound at exit 291 around Toms Brook.

Balderson said the detour operated “pretty well, considering.”

“I know there are a lot of inconvenienced people, but we’re doing the best we can to get it open as quick as we can,” Balderson said.

Myers said sinkholes are unusual but have appeared occasionally in the Shenandoah Valley, which rests upon limestone rock formations known as karst topography. Limestone is vulnerable to being dissolved by groundwater or surface water, a process that can lead to the formation of caverns and other open spaces underground that collapse the land above if they grow too large.

Myers said southern Augusta County “is a place known for sinkholes” and another one appeared in Rockbridge County a few years ago.

Balderson said the I-81 sinkhole appeared to have been formed by a cracked box culvert, which is used to carry water from one side of the highway to the other.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or

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