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VDOT planning I-77 safety improvements

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By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

SALEM — Safety on Interstate 77 at Fancy Gap has been an ongoing issue for the Virginia Department of Transportation.
Highway officials in 2012 revealed proposed safety improvements to the dangerous stretch of road in Carroll County. The I-77 safety project includes installing variable speed limit signs, more electronic message boards,  "pan-tilt-zoom" cameras and more road weather information systems.
The cost estimate is $7 million for the enhanced traffic and safety management system that will stretch from the North Carolina state line north to the 12 mile marker.

Though the proposed technology piece has not been fully funded yet, VDOT spokesman Jason Bond and Tim Martin, traffic operations manager, said the highway department nonetheless continues to carry out the parts it can.
“We continue to take incremental steps as funding becomes available,” Martin said.
Many of these actions have included more road striping to help motorists stay in their lanes, Martin said. Crews have painted diagonal lines on the shoulders and changed the “skip lines” to separate the lanes from 10 feet long with 30 feet in between to a “10-10-10” configuration.
These markings are to better help drivers delineate the lanes.
Crews have started to install the fiber optic backbone of the variable speed limit system, Martin added.
Designers continue to develop the system, which includes the programming for the technology to gather information on weather and pavement conditions and use those variables to set the appropriate speed limit, Martin said.
These steps are in addition to other efforts that included rehabilitating existing signs, adding chevrons to highlight curves and adding rumble strips and pavement markings.
The goal of the larger project is "to alert motorists of reduced speeds caused by potentially adverse conditions, such as fog, wind or vehicle incidents," according to information from VDOT.  "Dynamic message boards along the corridor will provide information regarding reduced speeds."
Transportation officials believe this will improve upon the message board near the 11 mile marker southbound, the static signs for wind and fog and the 13 visibility detection systems that provide information to the Salem Transportation Operations Center to provide active traffic management for the 30,000 vehicles that travel this section of interstate per day.
The proposal includes installing 23 new variable speed limit signs along the northbound and southbound lanes to reduce traffic speeds under adverse conditions.
Studies show that most crashes on this stretch of I-77 occur between the 4.7 and 8 mile markers, VDOT officials have said.
Snow and ice could also pile up along this stretch of road and wind has been known to knock over empty tractor trailers. VDOT officials have explained that this system was designed to detect visibility and pavement conditions including moisture, temperatures and wind speed.
Bond noted that there’s a human element that needs to come into play in order to improve safety — motorists need to drive in a way that’s appropriate for the existing conditions.
Drivers went too fast in the weather conditions on Sunday, and many ignored the fog warning signs.
“Low visibility combined with high speeds led to the accidents,” Bond said.
It might take several million dollars to complete the planning for the technology piece, Martin estimated.
It’s difficult to come up with an estimate when the full design hasn’t been completed, Bond said. “We are moving forward with the funding we do have.”

Dangerous Road
Recent multivehicle pileups on 1-77 near Fancy Gap
• Nov. 16, 2010: 75 vehicles, 2 dead, 16 injured
• May 21, 2001: 40-50 vehicles, 1 injured
• Jan. 18, 2000: 60 vehicles, 2 dead
• Oct. 5, 1998: 46 vehicles, 10 injured
• Feb. 14, 1997: 65-70 vehicles, 11 injured