i81 update  

Status Report: I-81 Studies Completed—Recommendations Made

In December, the Commonwealth Transportation Board got its first look at the recently completed Interstate 81 conceptual studies at its monthly workshop in Richmond. Along with books of studies inches thick, the board received recommendations for construction priorities from the Virginia Department of Transportation's Chief Engineer James Browder.

How Were the Recommendations Developed?

VDOT staff, members of the Federal Highway Administration and the consultants who performed the conceptual studies developed the recommendations based on:

  • Existing and projected traffic
  • Public comment
  • Current operating conditions and traffic flow
  • Condition of bridges and other structures
  • Safety concerns
  • Sequence of construction

Recommendations were developed for each of the three transportation districts in the I-81 corridor: Bristol, Salem and Staunton.

What Were the Recommendations for Construction Priorities?

Bristol— (Washington, Smyth and Wythe counties)

Salem— (Pulaski, Montgomery, Roanoke and Botetourt counties)

Staunton— (Rockbridge, Augusta, Rockingham, Shenandoah and Frederick counties)

  1. Rebuilding the I-81/I-77 overlap area in Wytheville
  2. Rebuilding the 13-mile section that begins just north of Bristol and extends to just north of Abington
  3. Replacing the I-81 bridge over Route 11and the Norfolk Southern Railroad tracks north of Atkins and the I-81 bridge over Reed Creek in Wythe County
  1. Improving the Radford interchanges at mile markers 109 and 114
  2. Rebuilding the eight-mile section starting two miles north of the Exit 150 interchange at Troutville and extending to six miles south of the interchange
  3. Rebuilding the 33-mile section starting just south of Christiansburg at the end of the current construction project and extending to six miles south of the Exit 150 interchange at Troutville
  1. Rebuilding 12.4-mile section through Harrisonburg starting about three miles south of the Route 11 south interchange to about two miles north of the Route 11 north interchange
  2. Rebuilding the eight-mile section through Winchester starting about two miles north of the Route 37 interchange and extending to about two miles north of the Route 11 interchange north of Winchester
  3. Replacing the Route 669 bridge over Interstate 81 at Exit 323, near the West Virginia state line

It is important to remember that these are only recommendations from VDOT to the Commonwealth Transportation Board, and no priorities for construction have been made at this time.

What is the Commonwealth Transportation Board?

The Commonwealth Transportation Board makes funding decisions and approves construction plans for roads in Virginia. Board members, representing each of Virginia's nine transportation districts as well as rural and urban interests, are appointed by the governor and approved by the General Assembly. The Secretary of Transportation, currently Shirley J. Ybarra, serves as chairperson and the Commonwealth Transportation Commissioner, currently David R. Gehr, as vice chairman. The 16-member board guides the Virginia Department of Transportation much like a board of directors.

What Happens Next?

The Commonwealth Transportation Board will use the list of recommendations as resource material as it sets VDOT's construction priorities for the next six years. This process of updating VDOT's Six-Year Construction Plan will take place in spring 1999 for implementation during the 1999-2000 fiscal year.

Each spring, before the board sets priorities for the upcoming fiscal year and makes the allotment of design and construction funds, pre-allocation public hearings are held in each transportation district. At these hearings, people provide input and express their desires for interstate, primary and urban road improvements in their areas.

The board considers public opinion in altering or making additions to the list of construction projects in the Six-Year Plan.

Before construction can begin on any road improvement project, detailed design plans must be developed through VDOT's design process. For design to begin, the Commonwealth Transportation Board must first allocate funding in the Six-Year Plan. Before the board approves design plans, public information meetings and hearings are held to give people an opportunity to provide comments.

After the board approves design plans, then right of way activities can begin, followed by construction. Each step is dependent on appropriate funding in the Six-Year Plan for implementation.

Designing specific construction plans and purchasing necessary right-of-way can take four to six years before construction can begin.

What does the board consider when setting priorities?

Public involvement is important to the board as it considers allocating statewide funding.

"It is important for people to make their concerns known because public involvement is essential to this process," explains Lorinda Lionberger, transportation board member for the Salem transportation district. "If you cannot attend the hearings, you can still comment by mail for ten days following your local hearing."

Safety issues are also an important factor the board must consider. The board also will consider areas where future development and traffic volumes will make construction much more difficult if plans are delayed.

Construction sequencing must also be considered. During actual construction, efforts will be made to minimize traffic disruptions and maintain two-lane traffic in each direction. To achieve this, projects such as bridge replacement will have to be done first. Sequencing the bridge and other interstate work will require precise planning, so that traffic is disrupted as little as possible.

How Can You Stay Involved?

Attending the annual pre-allocation public hearing in your area to express your concerns about Interstate 81 improvements is an important part of the process. These pre-allocation hearings are the board's opportunity to gather public opinion before allocating funding in the six-year construction plan.



Preallocation Dates In Your Area


March 19, 1999, 10:00 a.m.

Government Center in Verona


March 22, 1999, 9:30 a.m.

Virginia Highlands Community College


March 23, 1999, 9:00 a.m.

Salem Civic Center

Study Results

I-81 cuts through:

  • seven planning district commissions
  • 21 towns or cities
  • 32 counties

I-81 has:

  • four lanes, except around Wytheville where it is six lanes at the I-81/I-77 overlap
  • 90 interchanges
  • 19% of Virginia's population along its corridor

The recommendations for I-81 improvements were to widen:

  • 72 miles to the median in both directions with no barrier needed
  • 125 miles to the outside for both lanes
  • 70 miles with one lane to the median and the other lane to the outside
  • 35 miles to the median with a barrier

Traffic on I-81 has tripled in the last 25 years. Currently, traffic on I-81 in:

  • Bristol District has up to 42,000 vehicles per day
  • Salem District has up to 55,000 vehicles per day
  • Staunton District has up to 45,000 vehicles per day

There will be a minimum of six lanes needed to accommodate the traffic on I-81 for the year 2020. Areas such as Roanoke/Salem, Harrisonburg, Staunton, and Winchester will require more lanes, four in each direction or collector/distributor roads alongside the interstate.

The estimated cost to widen I-81 and improve its interchanges is $3.4 billion. This cost estimate will be refined as future design plans are developed.

Study Continues on I-81/I-77 Overlap

During the next 20 years, traffic on the overlapping section of interstates 81 and 77 in the Wytheville–Ft. Chiswell area is expected to more than double to 130,000 vehicles per day. Currently, an average of almost 58,000 vehicles per day travel on this six-lane section, more than the highway was originally designed to serve.

To accommodate the anticipated increase in traffic, two alternatives to widen this overlap section to 10 lanes were presented in summer 1998 during the first citizen information meeting held in this I-81 study area. As many as 60 homes and businesses located on about 575 acres could potentially be impacted by the expansion along the existing I-81/I-77 overlap section. Preliminary cost estimates put an approximate $350 million price tag on the expansion.

About 80 written and verbally recorded comments were received from the public regarding the proposed widening alternatives. More than half of the respondents, 58%, indicated they would like for VDOT to look at a third alternative – separating I-77 from I-81.

In response, VDOT staff asked the consultant engineering team to investigate the feasibility of separating the interstates. After reviewing several possible routings over a 60 square mile area, the team found that separating the two interstates is a feasible alternative.

This additional review was not intended to be an exhaustive study of all the possibilities that may exist to separate the two roadways. The separation alternative is simply a feasible third alternative. No decisions have been made regarding which of the three alternatives may be recommended by James Browder, VDOT's chief engineer, to the Commonwealth Transportation Board.

Because considerable public interest was shown in a separation alternative at the first citizen meeting, VDOT will hold an additional information meeting to update the public on the status of this I-81 study area and to obtain input prior to recommending an alternative to the Commonwealth Transportation Board.

The information meeting will be held on Tuesday, March 16 at the George Wythe High School in Wytheville. The meeting will begin at 7 p.m. with an opening presentation by VDOT and their consultant engineering firm. Following the presentation, citizens can informally review maps and other materials related to the study.

All interested citizens are encouraged to attend and participate in this meeting.

Construction Update

Bristol Area

In spring 1998, construction began to widen to six lanes a section of Interstate 81 in Bristol from Exit 74 in Tennessee to just north of Exit 7 in Virginia. The project, which is divided into two contracts, includes the reconstruction of the Exit 1 interchange with Route 58 (Gate City Highway) and modifications to the Exit 5 interchange with Route 11 (Lee Highway).

Work is about 40% complete on the section from Exit 74 in Tennessee to just south of Exit 3 in Virginia, which includes the Exit 1 reconstruction. A new five-lane bridge is being constructed to carry traffic on Route 58 over Interstate 81. Plans are to place steel beams on the bridge in late spring or early summer. Once the new bridge is completed, traffic will be re-routed onto the new bridge and the existing two-lane structure removed. English Construction Co. of Lynchburg, Va., has the contract worth approximately $21 million on this section. (The state of Tennessee is funding the segment in Tennessee.)

The section from just south of Exit 3 to just north of Exit 7 is about 28% complete. Eight bridges are being reconstructed on this segment, creating narrow lanes across the bridges. The new lanes are being constructed to the inside in the median area and to the inside of the bridges. Plans are for traffic to be rerouted onto the new lanes in late spring or early summer. At that time, work will begin on reconstructing the existing outside lanes. Jones Brothers Inc. of Mt. Juliet, Tenn., has the contract worth approximately $40 million for this section.

Construction on both segments is scheduled to be completed in fall 2000.

Christiansburg Area

Construction on the new Route 460 interchange with I-81 began in spring 1998 near mile marker 118. Work is about 38% completed with traffic moving on two new ramps.

I-81 will be widened to six lanes, and collector-distributor roads will be constructed parallel to the interstate. The project will include construction of ten new bridges and the widening of two existing bridges.

In September 1999, the collector-distributor lanes should be completed, and traffic will be shifted to these new lanes while work on improving and widening existing I-81 begins.

Branch Highways from Roanoke has this contract worth approximately $42 million.

Estimated completion is summer 2000.

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Page last modified: Jan. 26, 2018