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‘Something has to be done’: Crowd tells VDOT what’s wrong with I-81

Kermit Orndorff, 64, of Strasburg, points to his house along Junction Road, which is next to Interstate 81, as Jeff Lineberry, left, transportation and land use director for the Staunton District of the Virginia Department of Transportation, looks over his shoulder during a public hearing Tuesday at Strasburg High School on VDOT'S I-81 corridor improvement plan. Rich Cooley/Daily

STRASBURG – Kermit Orndorff Jr., 64, was one of about 100 people attending Tuesday night’s Virginia Department of Transportation’s Interstate 81 corridor improvement plan public meeting held at Strasburg High School.

Orndorff has a home on Junction Road in Strasburg, and he is concerned that if a third lane is added to the interstate, would that mean his property, a flat stretch of land, would be taken? He is also concerned about increased noise level.

He does, however, understand the need for improvements. Traffic on I-81 often backs up from the Interstate 66 exit past his home. If there is a crash, he said traffic on I-81 by his home comes to a standstill.

“Lots of times, I don’t even get on I-81,” Orndorff said.

He offered some solutions: Lower the speed limit on the interstate to 60 mph or use some space in the median for another lane.

Conrad Helsley, chairman of the Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors, points out a concern along Interstate 81 at Strasburg to Jeff Lineberry, center, transportation and land use director for VDOT's Staunton District, during the public hearing. At right is Strasburg Councilman John "Red" Hall Jr. Rich Cooley/Daily

Interstate 81 runs through the middle of Shenandoah County for about 35 miles, and for the last 2o years, Sheriff Timothy Carter said, people have expressed concerns about it.

The Strasburg area is an identified trouble spot on I-81 with a high number of crashes, a high number of severe crashes, and a high number of delay times of more than an hour for both lanes. Officials believe the problem results from a combination of the I-66 merge, dips in the road and a high volume of traffic on that stretch of the interstate.

Carter said they need to redesign the entire exchange.

He stressed every area of the interstate has its problems and VDOT needs to come up with solutions that will solve issues from increased traffic.

Carter expressed concern that Shenandoah County, being a more rural county, would not get the attention that urban areas, such as Harrisonburg and Stanton may get.

Nick Donohue, Virginia deputy secretary of transportation, speaks during VDOT's I-81 corridor improvement plan public meeting Tuesday at Strasburg High School. Rich Cooley/Daily

VDOT has five years of data to analyze, but officials decided to hold meetings along the I-81 corridor to hear from people who live and drive the interstate every day.

Dixon Wentworth, Nick Donohue and Tim White, all members of the corridor study panel, talked to the crowd Tuesday night about the 125 miles of the interstate that makes up VDOT’s Staunton District. Those attending were able to discuss specific problems with officials and view 23 boards that displayed sky view photos of portions of the interstate in the Staunton District.

“The size of this crowd tells us this is a long-standing issue,” Donohue said.

He stressed to the crowd that the corridor study panel, which has been tasked with identifying problems, coming up with solutions and ways to pay for those solutions, would not be rehashing old studies but conducting a new study.

“What we hear for concerns? It’s safety. It’s congestion,” Donohue said. “There are a lot of problems on the corridor. We may not be able to fund all of it. We will look for the most important and the most impactful solutions.”

Tim White, vice president of Kimley-Horn of Richmond, is shown in silhouette as he gives a power point presentation during VDOT's I-81 corridor improvement plan public meeting. Rich Cooley/Daily

The board is tasked with developing a much-demanded I-81 improvement plan that will:

•Identify segments of the interstate for improvement. This is to be based on safety, examining both crash rate and crash frequency; congestion, incident-related delays and multi-hour lane closures. The first update on this element of the study is scheduled for July.

• Identify a set of improvements for each segment.

• Provide an update on this element of the plan in September.

• Come up with strategies corridor-wide to manage incidents.

Tim Rhodes, land development engineer for VDOT's Edinburg residency, posts a note about a traffic concern along the ramp at the Shenandoah Caverns exit during VDOT's I-81 corridor improvement plan public meeting. Rich Cooley/Daily

The board will also study financing options for improvements.

Donohue stressed they are not anticipating “a big silver bullet” in the form of funding from the federal government, saying it was competitive to obtain those dollars.

Stephens City Manager Mike Majher attended the meeting and he said Stephens City is often the jumping-off point when I-81 is backed up.  That causes Routes 277 and U.S. 11 to clog with traffic. Emergency services, if they receive a call at this time, have to lay on their horns and try to force their way through traffic, he said, adding that businesses often just close early.

Frederick County Sheriff Lenny Millholland, who was also at the hearing, said something has to be done.

There are 24 miles of the interstate that runs through Frederick County.

Bill Holtzman, president of the Holtzman Oil Corp., sits in the crowded Strasburg High School cafeteria during VDOT's I-81 corridor improvement plan public meeting Tuesday. Rich Cooley/Daily

“My priority is the safety of the people who travel on 81,” Millholland said.

On Sept. 8, the day after a fatal crash on I-81 in Frederick County in which two people died, Millholland sent a letter to then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe urging action on widening the interstate.

“I write this letter to you in order to draw attention to what I view is a very serious problem and on September 7, 2017, became even more deadly,” Millholland wrote.

He explained that every time an accident occurs, interstate commerce comes to a standstill, is slowed or traffic has to be diverted onto alternate routes, creating a significant negative impact. It also forces already-strapped law enforcement agencies to assist one another in traffic control and other safety and security needs.

“I feel I have an obligation to pursue some logical way to ensure the safety of the citizens who drive through Frederick County for work or pleasure and to continue to promote commerce through our county and commonwealth,” he wrote.

Many people posted notes on areas of concerns on the photo boards.  Someone left on the Winchester area board “Backups on-ramp …congestion” by the on-ramp from I-81 onto Route 7.

People also left dots that showed concern about both crashes and delays on East Jubal Early Drive and Millwood Pike.

In Shenandoah County near Quicksburg and the Shenandoah Caverns area, most of the concerns people expressed with dots and notes seemed to deal with the shortness of the southbound merge onto the interstate, which has caused crashes and congestion.

That was an area Carter pointed out to transportation officials and said needed to be redesigned.

Residents can still offer input by mail to Ben Mannell at 1401 E. Broad St., Richmond, VA 23219  or by email to va81corridorplan@oipi.virginia.gov until Aug. 6. Any communication should be tagged I-81 Corridor Improvement Plan.

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