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Transportation plan includes I-77/I-81 overlap fix

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Governor includes total $60 million for preventing interstate traffic back-ups

By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

RICHMOND  — A chunk of Gov. Bob McDonnell’s transportation funding under the “Virginia’s Road to the Future” plan could go towards improving the overlap of interstates 77 and 81 in Wythe County.
Instead of finding free flowing traffic at the point where 77 and 81 meet, motorists can run into significant backups.
Under this plan, McDonnell would provide the Virginia Department of Transportation with $1.28 billion in new funding for 158 highway projects.
The governor’s office says this would provide “a significant investment in improving interstate pavement, secondary system bridges, mass transit, unpaved roads and other high priority projects.”
In 2011, Carroll County officials expressed concern about these traffic jams causing vehicles to pile up on I-77 and asked the state to address safety issues.
The culprit for this poor traffic flow appears to be the place at Fort Chiswell where I-77 merges into I-81 and the north-south and east-west corridors co-mingle their high volumes of traffic for about 10 miles.
Transportation officials announced plans to add one travel lane in each direction at the overlap in May 2012.
“The board took a significant action to improve mobility in a heavily congested region by approving a location for the I-77/I-81 overlap in Wythe County," said VDOT Bristol District Administrator Michael Russell after the Commonwealth Transportation Board’s decision.
“This area is not only an important transportation link for Virginia, but to North Carolina and West Virginia, as well."
The cost estimate for the overlap improvement is $457 million, according to information from VDOT.
The governor’s plan would budget about $10.15 million for the first phase of this endeavor, if approved. VDOT spokeswoman Michelle Earl explains the proposal would add a lane to the 77 exit onto 81, so that the two lanes of traffic on I-77 no longer gets funneled down to one lane, like it is now.
Earl could see this phase of overlap improvements going out for a design public hearing in the 2013-14 fiscal year.
A second proposed project would pick up where the exit project stops and add a lane on I-81 southbound from there to the vicinity of Exit 80, a distance of about a mile, she said. The governor’s proposal would supply $50 million in funding for that phase.
The process these proposals follow include approval by the General Assembly first.
Then, they would be added them to VDOT’s draft six-year plan in the spring and go before the Commonwealth Transportation Board for approval in June.
“A world-class transportation system is vital to both economic opportunity and to the quality of life of every Virginian,” McDonnell said in a news release about all the proposals. “It is imperative that we act now to ensure that Virginia continues to lead the way as a top place to live, work and raise a family.”
Tom Littrell, the Carroll supervisor who raised the concerns about the overlap, felt encouraged that the state officials are trying to improve traffic flow on the interstates.
“At least they recognize there’s a problem and are trying to rectify it,” he told The Gazette.
While the traffic jams used to occur just during holidays, the backups now can happen at random times, Littrell said.
He gets a sinking feeling when he’s on 77 and passes the Poplar Camp exit near the Wythe County line going north — the last chance to exit before the 77-81 ramp — and then starts to see brake lights come on in front of him.
“It can be pretty maddening if you’re in a rush to get someplace,” Littrell said. “It’s not in Carroll County, but it certainly impacts Carroll County and travelers going through Carroll County.”

Proposals from the governor’s plan that would apply directly to the Twin Counties include:
• $2.3 million to replace a bridge on Spring Valley Road in Grayson.
• $421,800 to improve unpaved roads
• $1.7 million to replace the U.S. 58 bridge over Crooked Creek in Carroll.
• $2.9 million to replace the U.S. 221 bridge over Big Reed Island Creek.
• $148,000 to improve unpaved roads in Carroll County.