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8/30/17 Daily New Record Article - Finding a Fix for I-81

Two Lawmakers Call For Road Improvements

By PETE DeLEA Daily News-Record

HARRISONBURG —  Two Shenandoah Valley lawmakers are calling for improvements to Interstate 81.On Sunday, three crashes backed up traffic in Augusta, Frederick and Shenandoah counties for miles."Something absolutely must be done to address the growing safety crisis on I-81 through the Shenandoah Valley," Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, posted on Facebook in response to the delays.The sentiment apparently resonated.The post received more than 400 comments, many offering suggestions to the problem.

Crashes And Delays
Obenshain and Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, say the interstate is becoming more problematic time- and safetywise. "The frequency of crashes and delays have increased significantly over the last year," Gilbert said. "It seems like every day, one side or the other — sometimes both — are shut down."Obenshain agreed with that opinion."The number of delays caused by wrecks is seemingly skyrocketing," he said. "[Drivers] are sick and tired of getting stuck in traffic."Delays aside, they say, the road is more dangerous — and deadly.According to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, 722 crashes occu rred on I-81 in Augusta, Rockingham and Shenandoah counties in 2015, including one that left one person dead. The number of fatalities on that stretch of the interstate jumped to 11, out of 708 crashes, in 2016. Two of the deaths were in Harrisonburg and two in Rockingham County." I’m probably on Interstate 81 almost every day," Gilbert said. " If it gets too bad, I certainly jump off and take other routes. It feels very unsafe at times."Citing statistics from the Virginia Department of Transportation, Obenshain said about 30 crashes occur annually that cause a delay of six hours or more."That’s an enormous delay," he said.A tractor-trailer crash, he said, typically creates an 8-mile backup.
Together, vehicles spend an average total of 16,355 hours stuck in traffic per crash, causing a loss of productivity of $612,000."That’s a big price that each one of us is paying," Obenshain said.

Searching For Solutions

Both legislators say the crashes and delays have them searching for answers."I don’t have the magic formula," Gilbert said. But, he said, he plans to work with other legislators to find solutions.Obenshain said VDOT has made safety improvements from Raphine south to Bristol, and that now is the ti me to focus on the highway from Staunton toWinchester. Both suggested expanding the interstate to three lanes in "pinch points," such as Harrisonburg, Staunton and Winchester."We know where the crashes take place," Obenshain said. "There are much higher crash rates in higher populations and exchange areas." They also said limiting truck traffic to the right lane in certain areas might be an option."We have to be thoughtful and creative," Obenshain said. Gilbert said they plan to raise the issue with the Commonwealth Transportation Board, which directs funding to road projects."We need to ratchet up the pressure," he said.