Interstate 81 History

Development of a nationwide system of “super” highways was first seriously considered in 1938, when Congress asked the federal highway agency, then called the Bureau of Public Roads, to study the feasibility of a toll-financed system of three east-west and three north-south superhighways. The study report encouraged the concept of a superhighway system, but said that it would be far from self-supporting if built on a toll-road basis. It proposed, instead, a network of toll-free roads for which the federal government would pay more than the normal 50 percent federal-aid rate.

The idea was studied further, and in the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1944, the Congress called for the designation of a national system of interstate highways “so located as to connect by routes, as direct as practicable, the principal metropolitan areas, cities and industrial centers, to serve the national defense and to connect at suitable border points with routes of continental importance.”

It was not until the passage of Congressional legislation more than a decade later, in 1956, that sufficient funding was provided for development of the system to begin in earnest. Eventually, the system was to total 42,500 miles.

Virginia’s share was more than 1,070 miles and the Highway Commission assessed what development of the interstate system would mean to Virginia:

“Construction of this modern road network . . . involves many problems and radical changes in thought. Under the new program, interstate highways will be insulated from marginal traffic generated by motels, service stations, other types of businesses and dwellings. Traffic entering and leaving these highways will do so at designated points. Cross movements of traffic, with which we are so familiar, will be eliminated.”

“The benefits of controlled-access construction are numerous. A modern, controlled-access road transforms, in many ways, the area through which it passes. Land values increase. This type of road promotes safety, saves travel time, reduces the strain on drivers and aids the economic development of the area. Controlled-access standards also protect the states investment in its highways.”

The first interstate hearing in Virginia was held in February, 1957. Work began shortly thereafter.*

I-81 Milestones

Construction of I-81 started in December 1957 on a stretch from one mile north of Buchanan to one mile south of the Rockbridge County line. Four miles of I-81 were open as early as 1959 near Pulaski. A small section known as the Harrisonburg bypass was also open in that city in the late 1950s.

By November, 1963, 85 miles of I-81 were open to the public:

  • 52-mile stretch from Bristol extending to five miles east of Marion
  • 15-mile stretch between Fort Chiswell and Newbern
  • 11-mile stretch extending just south of Buchanan
  • 7.5-mile stretch at Harrisonburg

    On November 1, 1964, a 15-mile segment west of Wytheville opened to the public creating a continuous 67 miles from Bristol to Wytheville.

    By December, 1964, 33 miles between Dixie Caverns and Fancy Hill (just south of Lexington) were opened to the public.

    In November, 1965, 26 miles from the West Virginia state line just north of Winchester to Strasburg were opened to the public.

    By December, 1965, a 22 mile section of I-81 from Newbern to Christiansburg was opened to the public.

    By November, 1966, 33 miles from Strasburg to New Market were opened to the public.

    On December 21, 1971, after much delay with funding, a 14.4-mile section of I-81 from Dixie Caverns to Christiansburg was opened to the public.

    The interstate was not completed, however, until July 1987 when work was finished on the I-77/I-81 overlap section in Wythe County.

    Today, as we enter the 21st century, transportation is more important than ever Economies are dependent not only upon the tourism and hospitality dollars generated by travelers but also on the truck freight systems that move our manufacturing products to their destinations. It is critical that interstate road systems be engineered to effectively handle traffic flow in the most efficient and safe way possible and to offer the public the technological means to assess situations and make accurate decisions. The Virginia Department of Transportation is striving to exceed these expectations and to make the I-81 corridor the transportation model for the country’s interstate system.

    I-81 Concept Studies

    In preparation for future widening of Interstate 81, VDOT conducted a review of the entire 325-mile corridor by dividing it into ten concept study areas. Aerial photography, traffic counts and traffic computer modeling were part of each study, along with two citizen information meetings per study area. The concept studies began in the spring of 1996 and were concluded in the fall of 1998.

    *Source: Virginia Department of Transportation’s Office of Public Affairs. A History of Roads in Virginia.

  • Page last modified: Oct. 14, 2012