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Proposed I-81 improvements unveiled

Southbound Interstate 81 traffic moves past the 298-mile marker at Strasburg on Wednesday evening. Proposals for improvements to the interstate were discussed at a public meeting Wednesday at Lord Fairfax Community College in Middletown. Rich Cooley/Daily

MIDDLETOWN – The public had its first look at possible improvements to Interstate 81 during a meeting Tuesday at Lord Fairfax Community College.

“I think this is one of the more robust comprehensive looks of I-81 in decades,” said Nick Donohue, deputy secretary of transportation and director of the office of intermodal planning and investment.

“I think we have identified a good set of possible improvements,” he added.

The suggested improvements for the Staunton district, which encompasses this area, would cost an estimated $1.2 billion if all are undertaken. That is almost half of the $3 billion projected cost of the entire proposed statewide corridor improvements, he said.

Part of the study will look at revenue sources to pay for the improvements, including heavy commercial vehicle tolling, a regional motor fuels tax and a regional retail sales and use tax.

John Good Jr., a Frederick County resident, asks a question during the public meeting about growing traffic volume on Interstate 81 and whether that is a consideration for making changes to the highway. Rich Cooley/Daily

A heavy commercial vehicle toll, however, could be challenged in court.

The board is not to consider tolling options that would apply to all drivers using I-81. It is this guidance to consider tolls on certain commercial trucks, but not on everyone driving the interstate, that could face a legal challenge.

The Virginia Trucking Association’s stand is that any proposal calling for truck-only tolls violates the anti-discrimination provisions of the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution.

In Rhode Island, a similar situation is occurring. On June 11, that state started charging commercial trucks at two tolling gantries and a lawsuit was filed on issue violations of the commerce clause.

The Virginia Department of Transportation recently launched the I-81 Corridor Improvement Plan as directed in Senate Bill 971. A board, made up of staff from the Commonwealth Transportation Board and supported by Office of Intermodal Planning and Investment, Virginia Department of Transportation and Department of Rail and Public Transportation, was directed to study the route with the goal of suggesting possible improvements and revenue sources to pay for those improvements.

Tina Downes, of Stephens City, takes a photo of the I-81 corridor improvements charts that show the portion of highway near her residence along Aylor Road. Rich Cooley/Daily

Suggested improvements unveiled Wednesday include:

• More message boards and cameras to help notify drivers in real time of incidents ahead of them.

• Improvement of detour routes, such as being able to switch timing on stop lights on the alternative routes to help keep traffic flowing.

• Added lanes in sections.

• Increasing the length of certain deceleration and acceleration ramps and auxiliary lanes to allow drivers to go from one exit to the next without getting into the main flow of traffic.

Nick Donohue, Virginia deputy secretary of transportation, speaks during the meeting. Rich Cooley/Daily

The board held four public meetings along the I-81 corridor in June to obtain public comments on I-81 trouble spots. The board received 403 comments via forms, email and phone calls. It received 161 congestion complaints, 138 complaints about safety and 104 complaints on other topics.

The board members were surprised by the number of comments asking if they would look into the lack of enforcement along I-81, Donohue said, adding that they have started to take a look at that as part of the study.

The study found that 51 percent of delays on the interstate appear to be incident related, making for unpredictable travel, VDOT Project Manager Ben Mannell said.

He said that some of the top problem areas can’t be solved with engineering solutions because are caused by driver behavior – such as inattention or drunken driving, hitting animals such as deer and even insufficient tire tread.

John Bishop, assistant director of transportation for Frederick County, questioned why improvements seemed to have stopped at the Berryville Pike exit – and did not include improvements for the Martinsburg Pike exit, which is the next exit to the north. He said there is a perception that crashes and incidents have increased there in the last couple of years.

U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-McLean, left, chats with Nick Donohue, Virginia deputy secretary of transportation, during the I-81 corridor study meeting held Wednesday evening at Lord Fairfax Community College in Middletown. Rich Cooley/Daily

While incidents have occurred there, they did not register as one of the top problem spots, Donahue said. If incidents increase in number or severity, it could be considered for improvements in the future, he said.

John Hutchinson, director of conservation for the Shenandoah Valley Battlefield Foundation, has been one of those paying attention to the study.

“I like what they are doing,” Hutchinson said, after the meeting.

He pointed to the proposal of 150 miles – or 15-20 percent – for new lanes added in a 650-mile stretch of I-81 and compared that to 2007, when another project study projected 80 percent new lanes.

“There will be less land disturbed and they are building those lanes where they are needed; it is more targeted. They are being smarter about improvements this time around,” Hutchinson said.

Bob Claytor, of Winchester, looks over the maps showing proposed improvements on Interstate 81. Rich Cooley/Daily

U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-McLean, was one of several officials at the hearing.

After the meeting, Comstock said the corridor improvements need to be a priority with local and state officials doing what they can to help secure funding for the improvements.

Some potential solutions proposed in this study with funding still to be identified:

Woodstock area

Northbound lanes

• Exit 283 – extend deceleration lane.

• Exit 291 – extend acceleration lane.

Southbound lanes

• Exit 283 – extend acceleration and deceleration lanes.

• Exit 279 – extend acceleration lane.

Strasburg to Middletown

Northbound lanes

• Exit 296 – extend deceleration lane.

• Exits 296 to 298 – add auxiliary lane between 296 and 298 to keep people out of the mainstream of I-81 traffic.

• Exits 298 to 300 – add auxiliary lane between 298 and 300 to keep people out of the mainstream of I-81 traffic.

• Exit 300 – widen the ramp to eastbound I-66 to two lanes.

• Exit 302 – extend acceleration and deceleration lanes.

• Exit 304 – extend deceleration lane at the truck scales.

Southbound lanes

• Exit 300 to mile marker 296 – widen to three lanes.

• Exit 298 – extend deceleration lane.

• Exit 296 – extend acceleration lane.

Stephens City to Winchester

Northbound lanes

• Exit 313 to 315 – add auxiliary lane between exits 313 and 315 to keep people out of the mainstream of I-81 traffic.

Southbound lanes

• Exits 315 to 313 – add auxiliary lane between exits 315 and 313 to keep people out of the mainstrean of I-81 traffic.

Some projects already completed, some under construction and some previously funded that drivers will soon see on I-81:

Strasburg to Middletown

• Exit 296 – extend northbound acceleration lane and southbound deceleration lane.

• Exit 300 – extend southbound acceleration lane.

Stephens City to Winchester

• Exit 310 – interchange modification project.

• Exit 315 Extend northbound deceleration lane.

• Exit 315 – install queue preemption on northbound off-ramp

• Exit 317 – extend northbound deceleration lane.

• Exit 323 – extend northbound deceleration and southbound acceleration lanes.

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