Improving 81: What’s been done and what’s to come

The percentage of tractor trailers on 81 is higher, and there are fewer lanes.
The percentage of tractor trailers on 81 is higher, and there are fewer lanes.
The percentage of tractor trailers on 81 is higher, and there are fewer lanes.(WHSV)
Published: Jan. 10, 2023 at 7:07 PM EST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) - Interstate 81 is a common route for truckers, travelers and locals commuting to and from work.

Too often, it’s often a source of delays. I-81 has become known as one of the deadliest roads in Virginia.

Podcasts, websites and studies have been dedicated to identifying the problems and identifying the solutions for the highway. The Interstate 81 Corridor Improvement Program was cleared in 2018, and progress is underway to make the corridor safer.

Traffic counts along the interstate have increased throughout the last several years, with between 50,000 and 70,000 vehicles traveling on the interstate each day.

Those numbers aren’t as high as other interstates, like I-95, but Ken Slack with the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) Staunton District said the percentage of tractor trailers on 81 is higher, and there are fewer lanes.

“For the most part the interstate is two lanes wide and sometimes has narrow shoulders as well. When there is an incident that means we’ve got congestion because we’re down to one lane or sometimes no lanes,” said Slack.

Congestion to that degree can cause serious crashes. To tackle that, VDOT put together the I-81 Corridor Improvement Program.

“What’s different about the 81 Corridor Improvement Plan, or Improve 81, is that there is funding attached to it this time,” said Slack.

Slack said recent improvements began with a series of public meetings and traffic studies back in 2018. The General Assembly approved things like gas taxes and fees, so drivers contribute to the financial aspects of the project.

By 2020, many smaller projects were underway. Fifty-one cameras were placed up and down Interstate 81, and dozens of message boards displaying current road conditions went up, too.

“For example, if you’re on Route 250 and approaching I-81, if there’s an incident on the interstate it gives you a chance to see that information and make a decision on whether you want to get on 81 or if you want to seek an alternate route.”

Right now, crews are working in Roanoke and Salem to widen the interstate to three lanes, and the same thing is in store for the Valley.

“Expect a whole lot of construction in the Staunton area by 2023 and the years right after that, 2024, and 2025, you’re going to see some more projects at similar levels of construction in the Weyers Cave area with truck climbing lanes and with the widening in the Harrisonburg area.”

Representative for Virginia’s 6th Congressional District, Ben Cline, said he wants to use money from the Infrastructure Plan on the corridor.

“Each and every day we wake up we just need to continue working to redirect that money towards 81, make sure that Virginia targets and prioritizes rural areas like ours, instead of northern Virginia and Tidewater for the vast majority of the funding,” said Cline.

Virginia Senator Tim Kaine said he’s worked on these improvements for decades.

“The challenge for Interstate 81 has been the price tag is so big, so how do you take available resources and use it to improve the travelers’ experience on Interstate 81? The extra dollars we are providing to Virginia gives Virginia significant ability to flood the zone with more resources to make improvements,” said Kaine.

The full Improve 81 plan spans 12 to 15 years, set to end likely in 2030.

At this point, many drivers are frustrated with the progress.

“It might look like we’ve had a slow start but that’s because many of the projects have had minimal traffic impact,” said Slack. “I still run into people that I see on a daily basis, even my family members that say when is something going to happen on the interstate. Or if you’ve lived here a long time, there have been a lot of things that we thought were going to happen that didn’t happen.”

For more on the Improve 81 plan, click here. For a view of the cameras on the interstate, visit VDOT’s 511 website.