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I-81 Corridor Program Will Ease Congestion and Improve Safety

by: Debra Wood
Crews install a flashing chevron to warm of a curve in Botetourt County. Virginia DOT aims to improve safety on I-81 with these upgrades. (Photo courtesy of the Virginia Department of Transportation)
Crews install a flashing chevron to warm of a curve in Botetourt County. Virginia DOT aims to improve safety on I-81 with these upgrades. (Photo courtesy of the Virginia Department of Transportation)
Aiming to improve safety and enhance reliability, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) has launched the 325-mile-long Interstate 81 Corridor Improvement Program.

“A sustainable investment of this magnitude along the Interstate 81 Corridor ensures that we can enhance the quality of life for Virginians, meet increasing freight demands, and increase reliability for regional travelers,” states VDOT Chief Engineer Barton Thrasher.

I-81 remains a critical north-south freight route with 11.7 million trucks riding it on annually, moving $312 billion in goods, which represents the highest per capita truck volume in the state.

“This is real, this is happening, and we are moving forward as expeditiously as we can,” says Dave Covington, Program Director for VDOT for Improve 81. “The three core benefits of the program are increased safety, reduced congestion and enhanced economic development opportunity.”

A Program, Not a Project
Rather than a project or series of projects, Improve 81 is a data-driven program, Covington explains.

The Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB), VDOT and other state entities began studying the corridor in 2018. Several severe crashes had taken place on the curvy, mountainous road. One goal was how to make the corridor safer and more reliable. In December of that year, the CTB approved the improvement plan, which identified $2 billion in critically needed projects along the corridor. In 2019, the state legislature and governor approved dedicated funding for the program, collecting regional increases to the fuel tax, a diesel tax increase, and truck fees and designating them to the Improve I-81 Program.

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“The dedicated funding allows us to move forward with the top-tier capital improvement and operational projects,” Covington says. “It’s incredible that this law was passed. A fuel tax increase is extremely challenging.”

Work on the Improve 81 Program is in addition to normal projects planned in each of the three VDOT districts.

“We are going to be moving as quickly as we can, and staying slightly ahead of the funding,” Covington adds. “My objective is to use the tax dollars in the most efficient manner possible.”

Completed Projects
Many of the operational improvements are completed, including flashing chevrons on historically hazardous curves. VDOT increased the safety service patrol along the corridor. The patrol helps motorists with disabled vehicles and protects incident response personnel. The department also installed CCTV traffic cameras to help manage incidents. Those videos are streamed live on the VA 511 website, so drivers can be aware if there is an incident or congestion on the interstate.

“Operational projects are generally much less expensive but give a good return on investment,” Covington explains.

Twenty-eight additional digital message signs are being installed. VDOT is also instituting a Towing Recovery and Incentive Program to incentivize the towing industry to respond and clear crashes on the interstate more quickly. This program has been successfully implemented in other areas of the Commonwealth.

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The department will continue to study solutions for truck parking to reduce roadside hazards, along with a speed enforcement strategy.

Additionally, eight capital improvement projects, ramp deceleration and acceleration extensions, have been completed. General Excavation of Warrenton, Virginia, finished five of the projects; W-L Construction & Paving of Chilhowie, Virginia, completed two projects; and Adams Construction Co. of Roanoke, Virginia, wrapped up one of the ramp projects.

“Making the ramps longer helps with speed adjustment and queueing if we have backups from the side roads, so we do not have stopped or slow-moving vehicles on through lanes on the interstate,” Covington says. “All eight of the projects were completed ahead of schedule.”

Capital Improvements
Improve 81 currently includes 56 capital projects, with potential for approximately 45 or 50 major construction contracts, some as high as $400 million, during the next 10 years, and additional procurements with service vendors for technology, cameras and other operational enhancements. Contractors within the state and large national firms have expressed interest in the work.

VDOT has a $250 million design-build contract under procurement, with a contract expected to be awarded in the spring. The project, which is in the Salem area, includes widening 4 miles from two lanes in each direction to three lanes, adding sound walls, and other associated work.

The short list of contractors for this project include Archer Western of Atlanta; a joint venture between Branch Group of Roanoke, Virginia, and Orders Construction of Saint Albans, West Virginia; and a joint venture between Lane Construction Corp. of Cheshire, Connecticut, and Corman Construction of Annapolis Junction, Maryland. The department plans to advertise more projects at the end of 2020.

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“We are serious about delivering this program in a transparent and accountable manner,” Covington says. “We are serious about developing and maintaining strong partnerships with contractors and consultants to work together and be successful across the board.”

The capital improvement projects include up to 200 bridges being replaced, rehabilitated, and widened – generally toward the median to use the existing right-of-way to the greatest extent possible. Many of the existing bridges were built in the 1950s and 1960s and are nearing the end of their useful life.

“There will have to be a lot of rehabilitation work if we are going salvage any of the bridges and widen them,” Covington says. “That complicates things, doing bridge rehab at the same time as bridge widening and doing it on 10 to 16 bridge sets on a single project.”

Some of the bridges have steel girders and others concrete girders. Most are standard construction but many have elements that will make reconstruction complex, Covington adds.

Contractors will need to keep lanes open on the interstate during the daytime, with nighttime closures taking place. The department also is making improvements on roads that could serve as alternate routes during emergencies.

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In the Roanoke area, VDOT has about $800 million in projects planned. Covington expressed concerns about being able to secure sufficient human labor and material resources for the projects. The industry already is struggling with labor shortages, and attracting people to a mountainous part of the state, which has not experienced this level of construction, could present challenges for the contractors.

Covington hopes to partner with public and private entities to bring more people into the construction industry and to train them quickly. Those people might include former coal miners.

“I’m looking at this as bigger than the I-81 Program,” he says. “It serves the industry into the future. Human labor resources will be a problem going forward.”

Improve 81 will present a major opportunity not only for new careers but for easier driving in the western part of the state.

“This is huge for those of us living along the I-81 corridor,” Covington says. “We want to make it as successful as we can.”

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