Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Interstate 81 Traffic Jam

Interstate 81 is the fast lane that connects Botetourt County to Roanoke City and the rest of the world. Exit 150, where one leaves I-81 to enter Botetourt County, has been known for traffic backups for as long as I can remember. That interchange is undergoing a reconstruction.

However, in the last two decades, the entire I-81 route has become infamous for backups. All it takes is a little ice or heavy rain or an inattentive driver and you have this:


 








Miles and miles - literally - of traffic at a dead stop with nowhere to go. Before I found my cellphone and started snapping photos, traffic further up apparently had been stopped for a while, because people were out of their vehicles, stretching, fetching sodas from the back seat, or whatever.

This was around 2:15 p.m. in the afternoon.

I-81 took 30 years to build. Construction began in 1957 and ended in 1987. The road plans initially were constructed for traffic expectations in 1970, I would guess.

Here's a history of the interstate from VDOT's website:

Construction of I-81 started in December 1957 on a stretch from one mile north of Buchanan to one mile south of the Rockbridge County line. Four miles of I-81 were open as early as 1959 near Pulaski. A small section known as the Harrisonburg bypass was also open in that city in the late 1950s.
By November, 1963, 85 miles of I-81 were open to the public:
  • 52-mile stretch from Bristol extending to five miles east of Marion
  • 15-mile stretch between Fort Chiswell and Newbern
  • 11-mile stretch extending just south of Buchanan
  • 7.5-mile stretch at Harrisonburg On November 1, 1964, a 15-mile segment west of Wytheville opened to the public creating a continuous 67 miles from Bristol to Wytheville. By December, 1964, 33 miles between Dixie Caverns and Fancy Hill (just south of Lexington) were opened to the public. In November, 1965, 26 miles from the West Virginia state line just north of Winchester to Strasburg were opened to the public. By December, 1965, a 22 mile section of I-81 from Newbern to Christiansburg was opened to the public. By November, 1966, 33 miles from Strasburg to New Market were opened to the public. On December 21, 1971, after much delay with funding, a 14.4-mile section of I-81 from Dixie Caverns to Christiansburg was opened to the public. The interstate was not completed, however, until July 1987 when work was finished on the I-77/I-81 overlap section in Wythe County.

  • The interstate is 365 miles long. From 1996-1998, the state did a "concept study" and talk of four-lanes became common, but nothing has been done.

    So people sit in traffic.

    I avoid I-81 as much as I can, but sometimes you simply have to use it. My preference would be not to widen the interstate but instead reconsider how we move freight, because as the photos above clearly show, much of the traffic is tractor trailer haulers. If we moved more freight by rail, we wouldn't need so many trucks (which would mean we would need to burn less fuel and we would decrease pollution, etc. etc.). But because the oil industry owns the U.S., I don't see that changes in the way we haul items from one end of the nation to the other will improve in my lifetime.

    In the meantime, we always keep snacks and water in the car (along with a roll of toilet paper) because you never know when you might be caught between the guardrails and unable to move your vehicle when you travel I-81.

    Update:

    After I wrote this, I learned that a fatal accident was the cause of the traffic backup. My sympathies to the family.


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