WEYERS CAVE — Virginia Department of Transportation staff sought help in addressing congestion and other problems along Interstate 81 on Wednesday.
About 110 people attended a meeting at Blue Ridge Community College held by VDOT and the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation.
The meeting was the third of four along the corridor to gather input before the Commonwealth Transportation Board studies and determines options to address the number of crashes and congestion problems along I-81.
VDOT will hold another meeting in August to discuss potential solutions and ways to finance improvements. In October, the board will present its recommended plan.
That plan will be presented to the General Assembly to consider during the 2019 legislative session. The board will consider all options, from tolling tractor-trailers to a gas tax to new rail lines along the corridor.
The meeting was mandated under Senate Bill 971, carried by Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, which was signed into law by Gov. Ralph Northam. The bill requires the transportation board to study and report financing options for I-81, including how much revenue could be generated by tolling heavy trucks.
Dixon Whitworth, Staunton district member of the board, said I-81 has been an “ongoing, growing problem that for too long has not been addressed.”
“The reason it hasn’t been addressed, foremostly, has been because of the enormity of the problem and the expense,” he said, “at least the perceived expense, of how we’re going to fix it.”
Nicholas Donohue, deputy secretary of transportation, said hearing from residents is important to identify tough spots along the road. At the October meeting, he said, staff will take public feedback on the board’s recommended improvements and financing plan before it goes to state lawmakers.
“We are really taking a new look at this corridor,” Donohue said. “We’ve done a ton of new data analysis that we have here to share with you.”
The interstate sees 11.7 million trucks each year, shipping about $312 billion in goods, according to a presentation by Tim White, a project manager working on the plan from the Richmond consulting office Kimley-Horn.
About 42 percent of Virginia’s truck traffic drives on the interstate as well, White said, and there were about 11,000 crashes over a five-year period. Of those, about 30 a year take more than six hours to clear.
I-81 also has unique issues compared with other Virginia interstates, he said. While about 72 percent of delays on other interstates come from recurring peak hour traffic, that traffic is only responsible for about 21 percent of delays on I-81.
“Incidents” contribute to about 16 percent of delays on other interstates, he said, while they make up 51 percent of delays on I-81.
“When Interstate 66 experiences problems, the problems are you sit in traffic for an extra half an hour,” he said. “Here, somebody died a fiery death.”
Del. Steve Landes, R-Weyers Cave, said all lawmakers along the corridor, regardless of political affiliation, want to make improvements and will work together to do so over the next several months.
However, he said, improvements will not be free or cheap. The commonwealth also cannot afford to widen the entire interstate.
“It has to be paid for in some form or fashion,” Landes said. “So, I just want to put that cautionary note out there because we can leverage federal dollars and pull down some federal funds, but we have to have state resources to do that.”
Bob Oakes, 68, of Weyers Cave, said his living room windows face I-81, so he sees the stopped traffic several times a week before he hears about it in the news.
“We’re such in a habit of seeing the stoppages that we make more of an effort to go Route 11, just because when it’s congested it’s like, ‘Why take a risk?’” Oakes said. “We’re avoiding 81 somewhat.”
He also said he’s concerned that widening the interstate will attract even more tractor-trailers to the point where I-81 grows to six crowded lanes instead of four in Rockingham and Augusta counties. He suggested the board consider investing into rail lines to carry cargo through the Valley and keep more trucks off the road.
Bob Hess of Massanutten Resort said he viewed the meeting as another way to procrastinate improving the interstate. The only way to address the problems is to raise taxes, he said.
“We’re probably looking at five years before we get any money,” he said. “These people all know, VDOT especially knows, where the problem areas are. They don’t need another study. I say this is a waste of time and money.”
Nancy Sorrells, 59, of Greenville, said she would like to see Virginia build roads directly to truck stops to keep tractor-trailers off smaller roads.
“These aren’t problems that we’re only experiencing in the Shenandoah Valley,” she said. “Put the right brains to it and the right dollars, and they can be fixed. Interstate 81 is an economic lifeline for us, so I’m glad they’re holding this to get people’s thoughts and ideas and come up with some solutions.”