Truckers and other Interstate 81 travelers said Monday they are looking forward to the widening of the roadway through Harrisonburg and part of Rockingham County.
“It’ll help a lot,” Beth Hart of Basye, who travels I-81 to Alabama frequently, said while filling up her truck at the Pilot Flying J just north of the city.
The highway improvement project will widen over 6 miles of the interstate to three lanes between mile markers 242.2 and 248.5, or roughly 1 mile south of Exit 243 and about 1 mile north of Exit 247, according to Virginia Department of Transportation documents.
The construction advertisement is estimated to go out in spring 2024, but the project plan is slated to be approved in early 2023.
VDOT will hold an in-person public meeting on Sept. 14, where officials and project workers will be available to discuss the project with the public.
The meeting will be held at Pleasant Valley Elementary School in the city between 4 and 6 p.m.
The project also includes repair, widening or replacing mainline bridges, installation of a concrete barrier and improved signs and pavement markings, and changes to rights of way, according to VDOT.
Construction is estimated to cost $239.5 million, and including engineering and right of way work, the total price tag of the project is almost $272 million, according to VDOT.
The money for the project and other I-81 improvements comes from several sources, including a regional gas tax.
Two years ago, the General Assembly passed a bill establishing a fund where the money generated by a regional gas tax would be spent on $2 billion worth of improvements identified for I-81. Improvements and expansion of safety services on I-81 began July 1, 2019.
The improvements, such as widening through Harrisonburg, were approved by the Commonwealth Transportation Board in December 2018.
The I-81 improvements include 56 capital projects, according to Dave Covington, project lead for the state’s I-81 improvements program. Eight are completed, 13 are under construction and five more are about to start construction, he said.
Jessybelle Adorno travels I-81 between her home in Martinsburg, W.Va., and the University of Virginia Medical Center for care for her ill son about three times a week.
Widening I-81 even over 6 miles will “of course” make the road safer, Adorno said.
“Sometimes, just with two lanes, it can be scary,” she said.
I-81 can be extra dangerous when a slow-moving truck is in the right lane and an only slightly faster truck is in the left lane as cars behind them jostle for position to move past, according to Adorno.
Truckers stopping for fuel along I-81 Monday also said the widening project would help them.
Samuel Shifflett, a dried goods hauler out of Charlottesville, said he stops in Harrisonburg every other day for work.
Like Adorno, Shifflett also sees the problem of slow-moving trucks in both lanes creating dangerous situations.
Another regular trucker through Harrisonburg and Rockingham County via I-81 is Waynesboro cattle hauler Brad Pate. He said the widening would help improve safety in the city and county stretch of I-81.
Tom Propst of Petersburg, W.Va., is a trucker in the state where I-81 has three lanes.
I-81 in the Mountain State still also has issues, where one truck in the center lane can be trying to pass a truck in the right lane and then all the cars jostle for the left lane to get past the rigs, according to Propst.
Adorno also said she has seen similar instances she thought presented danger to those on the road.
There are other problems with I-81 than the number of lanes, Propst said. For example, the acceleration lane at the nearby Exit 243 interchange is short, and sometimes Propst feels like the road is so crowded, someone could hit the overpass bridge before being able to merge into traffic.
The widening project includes overhauls of bridges and right of ways, such as Exit 243.
Propst said adding a third lane in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County would help, but it is not a silver bullet to the roadway’s issues.