Interstate 81 in Virginia

Interstate 81 in Virginia traverses 325.51 miles (including the 8.01 mile overlap with I-77, and the 29.91 mile overlap with I-64) from the Tennessee border in the City of Bristol to the West Virginia border in Frederick County. I-81 serves the towns and cities of Bristol, Abingdon, Marion, Wytheville, Pulaski, Radford, Christiansburg, Salem, Roanoke, Lexington, Buena Vista, Staunton, Harrisonburg, New Market, Strasburg, and Winchester. I-81 was built near to and parallel to an existing major interregional highway, US-11 from Tennessee to West Virginia. US-11 closely parallels the entire I-81 corridor from Tennessee to the New York State/Canada border; only from Harrisburg to Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania do the two highways significantly diverge.

The terrain I-81 crosses is varied, with rolling to mountainous terrain in the southern half, and rolling to gently rolling Shenandoah Valley terrain on the northern half. I-81 in effect crosses many small transportation barriers, and crosses one major one, Christiansburg Mountain, where the highway has a long grade several miles long, bypassing US-11/US-460, a 4-lane highway that was the scene of numerous serious accidents before the Interstate opened there in 1971. I-81 provides 70 mph design speeds along the entire highway in Virginia.

I-81 crosses a wide variety of mostly rural areas and some major urban areas. It runs through Bristol, a city of 20,000 people, and there is an Interstate spur connector to the downtown, I-381. I-81 serves the Roanoke/Salem area, a metropolitan area of 200 thousand people, and there is an Interstate spur connector to downtown Roanoke, I-581. I-81 serves all the towns and cities listed at the top of this page. In Virginia, I-81 serves as the "main street" of western Virginia, and in conjunction with I-64 also provides Interstate service from the western part of the state to the Richmond area and the Norfolk/Hampton Roads area. I-81 in conjunction with I-66 provides Interstate service between western Virginia and the Washington, D.C. area. I-81 passes through 12 counties in Virginia, with a total of about 20% of the state's population.

Route openings. The first section of I-81 to open to traffic was on November 1, 1959 with the 3.9-mile-long section from US-11/VA-100 south of Pulaski to VA-99 east Pulaski. The 5.5-mile-long Bristol Bypass was opened on Nov. 20, 1961, and the 52-mile-long section from the Tennessee border to east of Atkins was opened in 6 other sections from mid-1962 to Oct. 1963. The next 21.6 miles from there to east of Wytheville was opened in 2 sections in Nov. 1964 and Sept. 1965. The 15 miles from Fort Chiswell to east of Pulaski was opened in sections from 1959 to Aug. 1962, and the 22.0 miles from there to east of Christiansburg was opened in 2 sections in June and Nov. 1965, and that tied into the long section of 4-lane US-11/US-460 from Christiansburg to just west of Salem. The 28.9 miles from Dixie Caverns to east of Troutville opened in one section in Dec. 1964, and the 19.1 miles from there to US-11 north of Natural Bridge opened in 4 sections from Nov. 1960 to Dec. 1965. The 32.4 miles from Natural Bridge to US-11 south of Stuarts Draft opened in 2 sections in Feb. and Sept. 1967, and the 30 miles from Stuarts Draft to the south edge of Harrisonburg opened in 4 sections from Nov. 1966 to Aug. 1969. The 8.2-mile-long Harrisonburg Bypass was one of the early openings, in July 1960. The 47.2-mile-long section from US-11 just north of Harrisonburg to US-11 at Strasburg opened in 2 sections in June and Dec. 1966. The 26.2-mile-long section from Strasburg to the West Virginia border opened in 2 sections in Nov. 1965 and Oct. 1966. The 325-mile-long I-81 in Virginia was essentially complete by 1969; there were two incomplete sections totaling 19.2 miles which were served by rural four-lane highways. The 14.5-mile-long section from US-11 at Christiansburg to Dixie Caverns was completed on December 21, 1971, and 4.69 miles in the overlap with I-77 between Wytheville and Fort Chiswell was completed in 2 sections, the eastern half in Sept. 1985 and the western half on July 14, 1987, completing I-81 and I-77 in Virginia. I-81 was completed in Tennessee around 1975. At that time (1975), I-81 was essentially complete from Tennessee to Canada. The I-81 bypass of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania was completed in the late 1970s. The national I-81 route is 824 miles long.

Traffic volumes on I-81 vary considerably. VDOT 1997 traffic volume data follows. Figures are published rounded to the nearest 100. At the Tennessee/Virginia border the highway carries 32,000 annual average daily traffic (AADT ). At Bristol, the highway carries 40,000 AADT, with 20% large trucks. At Abingdon, the highway carries 34,000 AADT, with 22% large trucks. At Marion, the highway carries 26,000 AADT, with 20% trucks. Traffic volumes drop to a low of 23,000 just west of Wytheville. At Wytheville, volume rises to 36,000, and the I-81/I-77 overlap carries 46,000 AADT with 27% large trucks. East of the I-77 south interchange, volumes drop, and from there to Christiansburg, the highway carries 30,000 to 34,000 AADT with 29% large trucks. From Christiansburg to near Salem, the volume is 38,000 to 43,000. In the Salem and Roanoke area, the volume is 50,000 to 52,000 with 21% large trucks. From east of Roanoke to I-64 at Lexington, the volume is 30,000 to 33,000 with 32% large trucks. The 30-mile-long I-81 overlap section with I-64 carries 32,000 to 34,000 AADT with 34% large trucks. From I-64 at Staunton to US-211 at New Market, the volumes range from 38,000 to 44,000 with 25% large trucks. From US-211 to I-66 at Strasburg, the highway carries 30,000 with 22% large trucks. From I-66 to West Virginia, the highway carries 38,000 AADT and 22% large trucks in the rural areas, with 42,000 to 48,000 in the Winchester area.

The 8.01-mile-long I-81/I-77 overlap section was upgraded to 6-lane Interstate standards in 1987, with 4.69 miles of 4-lane US-11/US-52 reconstructed to an expressway with continuous service roads, and 3.32 miles of existing 4-lane Interstate widened. I have location and design public hearing brochures that show evaluation of several different alignments, and one of them would have put I-77 on its own alignment (no overlap), a couple miles north of I-81. The overlap alternative was chosen because of lower cost, and better service to the nearby towns. The rest of I-77 was initially built with 4 lanes.

Studies are underway to widen the entire 325 miles of I-81 in Virginia. VDOT had a plan to widen the highway to a minimum of six lanes, with about 75 miles of eight-lane widening in urban areas such as Roanoke, Harrisonburg, Staunton and Winchester, and in 1997 it was estimated to cost a total of $3.3 billion for engineering, right-of-way and construction, to be completed in phases by 2020.

In January 2002, a private consortium proposed under PPTA (Virginia's Public-Private Transportation Act of 1995), to fund and build the widening program.

Widening of Interstate 81 in Virginia - my article with extensive discussion about the current public-private partnership proposals for widening Virginia I-81 utilizing toll financing.

Interstate 81 and Interstate 77 - my article with more I-81 information and photos.

Interstate 81 - David "ZZYZX" Steinberg'spage for description of the national I-81 route.

Lead article Interstate Highway System in Virginia

Copyright 2000-2004 by Scott Kozel. All rights reserved. Reproduction, reuse, or distribution without permission is prohibited.

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By Scott M. Kozel, Roads to the Future

(Created 5-30-2000, updated 3-6-2004)