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VDOT plans $33M project for I-81
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VDOT plans $33M project for I-81

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BHC 10222021 VDOT Interstate 81 01

VDOT's Gene Holley talks about the plans to widen I-81 from Exit 7 to Exit 10 during a public hearing on Thursday.

BRISTOL, Va. — The Virginia Department of Transportation wants public input on a proposed $33.1 million plan to widen a portion of Interstate 81 near the Bristol/Washington County line.

VDOT hosted a public hearing Thursday to show off plans to widen 1.6 miles of southbound I-81 from mile marker 9.7 to mile marker 8.1, just north of Exit 7. Plans also include extending the northbound merge lane for motorists who get on the highway at Exit 7.

“We are getting public comment for the project. The deadline is Nov. 7. After we get that and answer all the questions, we will move on with the design, and that will lead us into right-of-way acquisition,” VDOT spokesperson Michelle Earl said. “Now is the time to provide input. We are about 30% done with the design, so this is the perfect time to get their views on the project.”

That segment of I-81 typically handles about 50,000 vehicles daily, both north and southbound, Earl said.

This would be the first major local project funded by the Interstate 81 corridor improvement program which was approved by the Virginia General Assembly and signed by Gov. Ralph Northam in 2019. A 2018 study identified about $2 billion worth of projects along the 300-mile corridor between Bristol and Winchester to improve traffic flow and safety.

“This got into the corridor CIP by meeting the criteria for the predicted traffic counts, and it looks at accidents and congestion,” project manager Gene Holley said. “We did multiple studies. One was to widen to the outside, and the other was to widen to the median. We did a cost-benefit analysis and found — if we went to the median — we could actually improve the northbound side also.”

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By using the median, the project will only require acquisition of 1 acre of land with no homes or businesses displaced.

The project would add an additional traffic lane on the southbound side from just south of the Exit 10 bridge to existing three-lane near the Highlands shopping center. The median is wider from mile marker 9.7 to about 8.9, and at that point the third lane would be separated from the northbound side by a concrete barrier with the lane blending into the existing three-lane configuration.

Plans also include widening the existing bridge over Old Dominion Drive on the southbound side.

The third lane of I-81 northbound will extend to just south of the Old Dominion Drive crossing, but no work is planned on that section of the overpass, Holley said.

“We found if we widened to the median, we could extend that drop lane by using the concrete barrier in the middle, so we will separate those two merge points, which is huge from a safety standpoint. We are able to carry it [new northbound] quite a ways to almost Old Dominion Road,” Holley said.

Plans also include adding sound barrier walls in three locations along the route.

The project has already been endorsed by the city and Washington County, he said.

Construction is expected to begin in either late 2023 or early 2024 and take about two years to complete.

dmcgee@bristolnews.com | 276-645-2532 | Twitter: @DMcGeeBHC

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