VDOT budget woes cut into I-81 safety improvements
The Winchester Star
April 9, 2009
By Caddy Burrows
Winchester — Of the eight most accident-prone sites on Interstate 81 in the state, only one will receive Virginia Department of Transportation funds to bolster safety this year.
Two of the eight sites are in the Shenandoah Valley — Winchester’s Exit 313 and, in Shenandoah County, Toms Brook’s Exit 291 — but neither will receive funding.
VDOT has committed 0.17 percent of its 2009 budget — $861,000 — to improving the eight highest-ranked crash areas on I-81. Those sites have accident numbers that are more than double the state average.
John Hutchinson, land-use planner for the Shenandoah Valley Network, does not think that’s enough money to reduce the number of accidents.
And while VDOT plans to widen 69 percent of I-81 in Virginia in the coming years, he does not think that will improve safety.
“It will cause more tractor-trailers to be on the highway, which will cause more accidents,” Hutchinson said.
The projected cost of the widening effort, which would make most of the 325-mile I-81 corridor eight lanes wide, is $11.4 billion.
Millions of dollars have been spent in recent years to address Winchester’s Exit 313.
A new northbound on-ramp to I-81 from U.S. 50 and U.S. 522 opened in September 2007. That extended the merge area onto the highway and marked the final traffic-pattern improvements for the interchange.
The extended merge area included a new bridge over Abrams Creek.
A contract for the $7,940,834.35 in improvements at Abrams Creek was approved by the Commonwealth Transportation Board in July 2006.
In addition to the new ramp, project improvements included new signalization at nearby intersections; additional lanes at U.S. 50, U.S. 522, and the I-81 northbound entrance ramp; and a sidewalk along the south side of U.S. 50.
Those safety improvements came too late for some.
Amber Beatley of Winchester lost her sister Angela in 2002 in a crash at Exit 313.
Amber Beatley said a car cut off a tractor-trailer at the U.S. 50 ramp onto northbound I-81, causing the truck to slam into a row of cars — her sister was riding in one of them.
“She had her whole life ahead of her,” Beatley said. “She was a medical records assistant at the Winchester Medical Center and she was engaged.”
Brandeis Wilson, an 18-year-old freshmen at Shenandoah University, also died in the crash.
Despite the recent safety improvements at the Winchester interchange, citizen groups and leaders in the Shenandoah Valley are urging Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and VDOT to focus any I-81 stimulus dollars to problematic safety spots such as Exit 313, rather than the interstate widening effort.
Virginia is scheduled to receive $800 million in federal stimulus dollars for transportation and infrastructure improvements.
The one dangerous crash site on I-81 that is receiving funding is at mile marker 48 in Southwest Virginia, where a correction is being made to a steeply graded portion of the highway.
Two other I-81 projects scheduled to receive $140 million in federal funds this year — both of which involve the construction of truck lanes — are not in areas ranked among the highest crash locations.
Pierce Homer, Virginia’s secretary of transportation, said the $140 million was appropriated for those improvements only.
He said additional money is not available for the crash sites.
“We have had a major cutback because of the economy,” he said of VDOT’s budget. “VDOT has laid off almost 1,500 employees, and half of the rest areas in the state have also been closed. We are cutting back on everything.”
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