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I-81

Back in 2007, highway agencies approved a damaging and expensive mega-widening plan for I-81. This misguided proposal called for eight or more lanes through most of the corridor and a price tag north of $11 billion. This expensive plan was to be funded by tolls.

Apart from the shocking price tag, corridor-length widening was not the answer then, and it’s still a bad idea. Right-of-way acquisition would require the taking of an estimated 926 homes and 662 businesses.

Extensive widening would degrade the character of historic communities and lead to a loss of productive farm and forest land. Historic battlefields and natural resources would be irreparably damaged. The cost is much too high. (Photos from VDOT’s Tier One Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS), 2007)

Because the final proposal for I-81 was so costly and damaging, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) has not implemented solutions for much of the corridor. And projects that have moved forward are engineered to meet the oversized dimensions in the approved plan, wasting scarce transportation dollars. For example, the controversial “truck climbing lane” project in Rockbridge County cost $84 million because it added an excessive three lanes (36 feet) of pavement. A similar problem occurred in Montgomery County costing $89 million.

Between 2005 and 2007, as the excessive I-81 plan was being developed, community members were calling for a plan that solved traffic problems with less cost and fewer impacts. Local governments and community groups, including Augusta, Rockingham, and Shenandoah counties, endorsed “Reasonable Solutions for I-81,” a combination of fixes.

First, data showing known safety and congestion hotspots can be used to target solutions. The proposed upgrades to interchanges in Harrisonburg at East Market Street and Port Republic Road, for example, are the kind of focused improvements we need.

Also, improvements should be built in the existing right-of-way, thereby reducing historical and environmental impacts and avoiding costly eminent domain purchases of homes and businesses.

Moving more long-distance freight traffic onto Norfolk Southern’s parallel rail line has long been a sensible part of the solution.

Many of the pinch points are generated by local traffic, where improved local road networks are a lower cost and more effective way to ease highway congestion. The new Stone Spring Road extension in Harrisonburg is an example.

Finally, enforcement works and more is needed. Although it feels busier to most of us, the truth is car and truck traffic on I-81 has increased by a fraction of VDOT’s forecast. Faster speeds and distracted drivers need to be addressed.

“Reasonable Solutions” are as relevant today as they were 10 years ago, and leaders must consider the combination of fixes. Simply relying on more pavement to address problems on I-81 is too costly – tax payers and the environment can’t afford it.

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