Work on all 48 remaining I-81 improvement projects remain on schedule, with some even ahead of schedule, according to Virginia Department of Transportation staff.
The Interstate 81 advisory committee met Friday morning to hear updates from VDOT staff about the roadway improvements, truck parking situation and facets of the I-81 corridor impacting residents and commuters.
Dave Covington, the I-81 improvements project lead, said at this time there are no plans for any delays either.
Del. Tony Wilt, R-Broadway is on the advisory committee and called the news “a very pleasant surprise.”
Though there was up to a 64% drop in traffic of all vehicle types using Virginia roadways at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the I-81 fund remained relatively safe and even finished fiscal year 2020 on June 30 having generated $69.8 million — nearly $15 million more than the year’s estimate, according to VDOT data.
The regional gas tax, revenues from which can only be spent on the $2 billion-worth of I-81 improvements, has brought in about $6.7 million a month, with the lowest revenue generated in a month being $5.7 million in June, according to VDOT’s data.
Traffic volumes across all vehicle types began lurching downward a few days after Gov. Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency on March 12, according to previously obtained VDOT data. As more and more dominoes fell as the state closed, such as the schools shuttering on March 16 and the statewide stay-at-home order on March 30, the volume of traffic of all vehicles began to reach its nadir.
Though commuter traffic has not returned to pre-pandemic levels, truck traffic has remained strong, according to VDOT data presented by Covington.
“We have seen an increase in truck traffic throughout COVID, though there’s a decrease in commuter traffic,” Emily Wade, the assistant director of communications for VDOT, previously said.
Five I-81 improvement projects have already been completed in the Staunton District, which includes the Winchester area, while others are in the design phase.
Along the whole corridor, three projects have already been competed. These include curve improvements, such as static and flashing chevron signs, enhancements to the safety service patrol and lift-and-tow operations.
Nine of the 51 new traffic cameras have yet to be installed and construction is underway and ahead of schedule on the digital message signs. The sign project is slated to be complete on Oct. 28, 2021.
Cathy McGhee, director of research and innovation for the Virginia Department of Transportation, gave a presentation on the progress of the state’s truck parking task force.
Last November, McGhee said VDOT would be convening the task force.
Truckers have said parking is a major issue on the I-81 corridor.
I-81 was originally designed to handle about 15% of its traffic as trucks. Data from recent years show that has increased to an average of 26% and up to 35% in some places.
“It hinges around safety,” Wilt said of having parking available for tired rig operators.
Southbound I-81 is estimated to need 2,500 truck parking spaces, while northbound I-81 is estimated to need a total of 1,900 parking spaces.
However, the current supply of spaces on I-81 is 950 spaces short — with 600 spaces needed southbound and 350 spaces northbound, according to VDOT data.
Of the state's 14 public rest areas, five have been identified for expansion possibilities, which would yield 131 new spaces, according to McGhee.
Other approaches VDOT is taking to tackle the issue include incentivizing private lots to expand and establishing a tech network to provide real-time parking availability figures to truckers operating.
McGhee said recommendations for committee action will be offered to the group in the summer.
Wilt said he would like to have seen the recommendations sooner, but understands how VDOT staff have been delayed considering the COVID-19 pandemic.