Work on all 48 remaining I-81 improvement projects remain on schedule, with some even ahead of schedule, according to Virginia Department of Transportation staff.
The Interstate 81 advisory committee met Friday morning to hear updates from VDOT staff about the roadway improvements, truck parking situation and facets of the I-81 corridor impacting residents and commuters.
Dave Covington, the I-81 improvements project lead, said at this time there are no plans for any delays either.
Del. Tony Wilt, R-Broadway, is on the advisory committee and called the news “a very pleasant surprise.”
Though there was up to a 64% drop in traffic of all vehicle types using Virginia roadways at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the I-81 fund remained relatively safe and even finished fiscal year 2020 on June 30 having generated $69.8 million — nearly $15 million more than the year’s estimate, according to VDOT data.
The regional gas tax, revenues from which can only be spent on the $2 billion-worth of I-81 improvements, has brought in about $6.7 million a month, with the lowest revenue generated in a month being $5.7 million in June, according to VDOT’s data.
Traffic volumes across all vehicle types began lurching downward a few days after Gov. Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency on March 12, according to previously obtained VDOT data. As more and more dominoes fell as the state closed, such as the schools shuttering on March 16 and the statewide stay-at-home order on March 30, the volume of traffic of all vehicles began to reach its nadir.
Though commuter traffic has not returned to pre-pandemic levels, truck traffic has remained strong, according to VDOT data presented by Covington.
“We have seen an increase in truck traffic throughout COVID, though there’s a decrease in commuter traffic,” said Emily Wade, the assistant director of communications for VDOT in a previous interview with the Daily News-Record.
Five I-81 improvement projects have already been completed in the Staunton District, which includes Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, while others are in the design phase.
The northbound and southbound Weyers Cave truck-climbing lane projects are under contract negotiation, according to Covington.
VDOT will advertise for the ramp extension projects at Exits 304, 296 and 291 in December.
Along the whole corridor, three projects have already been competed. These include curve improvements, such as static and flashing chevron signs, enhancements to the safety service patrol and lift-and-tow operations.
Nine of the 51 new traffic cameras have yet to be installed and construction is underway and ahead of schedule on the digital message signs. The sign project is slated to be complete on Oct. 28, 2021.
Cathy McGhee, director of research and innovation for the Virginia Department of Transportation, gave a presentation on the progress of the state’s truck parking task force.
Last November, McGhee said VDOT would be convening the task force.
Previously and since, multiple truckers told the Daily News-Record parking is a major issue on I-81 facing the industry, their pockets and everyone’s safety.
I-81 was originally designed to handle about 15% of its traffic as trucks. Data from recent years show that has increased to an average of 26% and up to 35% in some places.
“It hinges around safety,” Wilt said of having parking available for tired rig operators.
Southbound I-81 is estimated to need 2,500 truck parking spaces, while northbound I-81 is estimated to need a total of 1,900 parking spaces.
However, the current supply of spaces on I-81 is 950 spaces short — with 600 spaces needed southbound and 350 spaces northbound, according to VDOT data.
Of the state’s 14 public rest areas, five have been identified for expansion possibilities, which would yield 131 new spaces, according to McGhee.
Other approaches VDOT is taking to tackle the issue include incentivizing private lots to expand and establishing a tech network to provide real-time parking availability figures to truckers operating.
McGhee said recommendations for committee action will be offered to the group in the summer.
Wilt said he would like to have seen the recommendations sooner, but understands how VDOT staff have been delayed considering the COVID-19 pandemic.
Also during Friday’s meeting, Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation staff also said it was considering expanding the successful Virginia Breeze bus service.
The Virginia Breeze bus service carried nearly 29,000 riders in 2019 — over four times its expected annual ridership of 7,000, according to DRPT staff.
The expansion would include another stop in Bristol and new stops in Wytheville and Salem — the additions expected to increase ridership about 70%.
“That’s exciting, but the actual dent [of Virginia Breeze is] pretty minimal if you’re looking at total traffic,” Wilt said.
In rail news, Amtrak ridership in the corridor has risen 7% over the last two years, also according to DRPT staff.
About 70 million tons of shipments are made in the I-81 corridor each year, which reduced truck traffic on the interstate by about 3.4 million shipments, according to DRPT staff.
Decreases in coal shipments allow for increased use of railway capacity for agricultural and timber products, staff said.
Two local I-81 corridor rail improvement investments included $450,000 to Houff Corporation, which kept 17,415 trucks off the road over five years and created 28 new full-time jobs, according to DRPT staff.
The Rail Preservation Fund Investment has awarded $3.1 million to the Shenandoah Valley Railroad since 2006 and reduced truck traffic by over 52,000 rigs on the interstate between 2009 and 2018. The investment also led to the railway doubling its customer base, according to DRPT staff.