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    Document Summary
    - Report Published -

    Senate Document No. 3

    Document Title
    Interstate Route 81: Needed Improvements

    Department of Transportation

    Enabling Authority
    SR 19 (Regular Session, 2006)

    Executive Summary
    Following action by the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) on October 11, 2006, both the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) are positioned to carry out the three directives of SR 19 (see Appendix A: SR 19) as passed by the Senate of Virginia in 2006. The CTB sets policy and direction and allots funding for certain agencies within the transportation secretariat.

    CTB members voted unanimously to accept a comprehensive improvement strategy for the Interstate 81 corridor in Virginia that includes:

    • planning future capacity improvements;
    • making short-term safety improvements to the interstate; and
    • conducting a multi-state freight rail study in cooperation with Norfolk Southern Corp.

    (See Appendix B: News Release – CTB Endorses I-81 Improvement Strategy.) These three strategies generally correspond to the three actions directed by the Senate.

    First, in looking at possible future expansion of I-81, the CTB considered substantial public involvement and findings of the I-81 Corridor Improvement Study that is being conducted by VDOT and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). This study – required by federal law before improvements can be made to I-81 – shows that 37 percent of I-81 needs one additional lane in each direction, while most of the remainder may need up to two additional lanes in each direction to handle future traffic. The CTB directed VDOT to finalize the study (also called the Tier 1 Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)) with a future concept for I-81 that would build not more than one or two general purpose lanes only where needed in each direction. The next step in the process is for VDOT to send the study to FHWA for approval. That approval could come in the first quarter of 2007.

    Although future needs have been identified for I-81 and the federally-required Tier 1 study is nearly complete, additional studies are required before construction can begin on improvements to I-81. These studies will be more specific in nature and will focus on eight shorter sections of the interstate identified in the EIS. It is estimated that each of these Tier 2 studies will take from six months to two years to complete, depending on the scope of the project and its potential impacts. Because these eight identified sections of I-81 are independent of each other, it is possible that several studies could be under way simultaneously.

    Funding has been allocated by the CTB for VDOT to conduct Tier 2 studies. However, no funding has been identified for construction to increase capacity on I-81. Therefore, no timetable for construction is available.

    Second, the Board recognized that there is an immediate need for safety and operational improvements along I-81. VDOT was directed to pursue a program of short-term safety improvements to include building dedicated truck climbing lanes and extending on- and off-ramps at interchanges, among others.

    Many of these short-term safety improvements can be designed quickly with some construction under way within two years. However, truck climbing lanes and ramp extensions alone will cost more than $400 million, and only about $100 million in federal funding is available. VDOT is committed to capturing and maximizing available federal funds to get some of these safety improvements under construction as soon as possible.

    Third, the CTB directed that a multi-state Freight Rail Study of the I-81 corridor, conducted by DRPT in cooperation with the Office of the Secretary of Transportation, the Multimodal Planning Office and Norfolk Southern Corp., begin as soon as possible. The study will identify high impact, short-term rail improvements in the I-81 corridor and identify several scenarios under which truck traffic could divert to rail. Freight that flows into and through Virginia but originates in other states will be included in the study. The rail study will take about a year to complete, and based on its results, Virginia will be prepared later in 2007 to facilitate specific rail improvement projects to improve freight movement in the general corridor.

    In summary, recent action by the CTB on I-81 reflects the direction of SR 19 and provides a framework for both VDOT and DRPT to continue the work the agencies have begun to address current and future needs of the corridor.