Virginia Department of Transportation officials on Tuesday sought feedback for a project they say would make Interstate 81 meet future capacity needs, improve safety and repair existing infrastructure.
About three dozen people attended the hearing at Pleasant Valley Elementary School, including Sallie Wolfe-Garrison, chair of the Rockingham County Board of Supervisors, and Del. Chris Runion, R-Bridgewater.
The $320 million, 6.8-mile project will widen Interstate 81 to three lanes northbound and southbound from one mile south of the Exit 243 interchange, near Pleasant Valley Road, to approximately one mile north of the Exit 247 interchange.
The additional lanes would be located on the inside of the existing lanes, largely within the existing right of way, according to VDOT drafts. A concrete median barrier will be maintained.
It also will repair, widen and replace the eight existing mainline bridges within the project limits.
As an alternative to a traffic light, VDOT proposes a roundabout at the bridge near Pleasant Valley Elementary School at the intersection of Pleasant Valley Road, Abbott Lane and Early Road.
A noise barrier is proposed in some sections of the interstate improvements. Ross Hudnall, a VDOT highway noise specialist, said engineers are completing studies to find where noise barriers could be reasonably located.
Noise walls are structures built to reduce noise levels created by nearby highway traffic, Hudnall said. Walls are only built after studies show certain conditions are met.
Noise walls, Hudnall said, must reduce noise levels by at least five decibels for 50% or more of the impacted properties. They must also reduce noise levels by seven decibels or more for at least one of the impacted properties.
Hudnall said officials are wrapping up a preliminary noise analysis, and will prepare to undergo another study before a final proposed design at the end of the year. A preliminary noise analysis, he said, counts the current volume of traffic on the road, the speeds cars are traveling and its lane distribution.
According to VDOT data, Interstate 81 through Harrisonburg had an average daily traffic count of 58,000 vehicles per day. By 2047, officials expect an estimated traffic volume of 81,300 vehicles per day.
The public comment period for the project closes July 8. Letters can be mailed to Scott Alexander, VDOT Staunton, 811 Commerce Road, Staunton, VA. Alexander can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Once all comments are received, the Commonwealth Transportation Board will consider the proposals and make a decision to approve. If approved by the Commonwealth Transportation Board, the major design features will be presented to VDOT’s chief engineer for its consideration.
In 2018, the Commonwealth Transportation Board approved the I-81 Corridor Improvement Program, which includes this project. The $2 billion package was funded by the Virginia General Assembly and signed into law in spring 2019.
Ken Slack, a spokesperson for VDOT, said officials will consider the designs in late 2023. Construction is slated to begin in spring 2025, he said.
‘Major Artery Into The City’
Regarding public safety, Harrisonburg Police Department Capt. Jason Kidd said the project is something the department will keep an eye on as it progresses.
“Eighty-one is such a major artery into the city,” he said. “Any time there is a change, we have to reconsider our operations.”
Traffic problems on Interstate 81 not only frustrate Harrisonburg residents, but also travelers from outside the area, Kidd said. U.S. 11 in Harrisonburg, a popular detour, can handle the increased traffic from Interstate 81, but there are problems that can flare in areas where the pattern is uncommon, such as Court Square.
“If this is what the state elects to do, we will make it work with our operations,” Kidd said.
Once the project is completed, Slack said, Interstate 81 through Harrisonburg will look like an “urban section.” Kate Wofford, executive director for the Alliance of the Shenandoah Valley, said the conservation organization supports widening the interstate in congestion and safety hot spots, rather than a wholesale widening throughout the state.
“That is one of the areas that is a problem,” she said. “We support improving areas that need investments.”
The Alliance for the Shenandoah Valley would not support a mass widening of Interstate 81 throughout the state, Wofford said, because it would hinder the agricultural integrity and beauty of the Shenandoah Valley.
Kyle Lawrence, director of the Shenandoah Valley Bicycle Coalition, noted the alterations that will need to be put near the overpasses and bridges within project limits. Interstate 81 has an overpass by Country Club Road, an area Lawrence said is dangerous to bikers and pedestrians.
He urged VDOT to consider creating space for bikers and for sidewalk connectivity when VDOT makes improvements to the area.