The Winchester Gazette

I-81 Upgrades Show Innovative Strategies for Safer Work Zones

Image sourced from the NEW Fall 2023 Improve81 newsletter.


Winchester, Virginia — As the Fall of 2023 rolls in, the Winchester and Frederick County region finds itself at the crossroads of a significant infrastructure upgrade – the Interstate 81 (I-81) Corridor Improvement Program (CIP)


While this program promises improved travel experiences, it’s vital to understand how safety is being prioritized amidst this extensive revamp.


What’s Happening?

The I-81 CIP encompasses various projects stretching across the 325-mile I-81 corridor, from Smyth County to Staunton, including truck-climbing lanes, widening projects, and auxiliary lanes. 


The projects may differ in terms of schedules, contractors, and locations, but the focus remains uniform: ensuring the safety and predictability of these work zones for motorists.


Chris McDonald, Salem District Operations Director, emphasizes the importance of uniformity, stating, “Motorists should know what to expect from work zone to work zone – the same traffic taper, same design, same basic components. That’s the key. No surprises.”


McDonald further adds, “Confusion can sometimes lead to crashes. If motorists don’t realize they’re leaving one work zone and entering another, that’s a good thing.”


To achieve this uniformity, the I-81 CIP relies on a corridor-wide Traffic Management Plan (TMP) guidance document. Dave Covington, I-81 Program Delivery Director, explains, “The TMP strives for corridor-wide consistency but allows room for flexibility.”


“The number of motorists and the volume of commercial trucks transporting goods has increased considerably over the past few decades and is expected to double by 2040,” he adds.


A critical aspect of the TMP is the collection and monitoring of baseline performance data. Covington says, “If you start getting spikes, we can identify areas for improvement during the project – and adjust our strategies going forward.”


Innovative Safety Measures

In addition to these safety protocols, the I-81 CIP introduces innovative technology to further enhance safety. 


These measures include visual warnings for slow-moving equipment, queue management sensors to notify drivers of slowed or stopped traffic, and GPS geofencing to alert drivers when entering construction zones or approaching speed-limit changes.


Construction Manager Joe Duquette from the VDOT Staunton District emphasizes the importance of planning, scheduling, coordinating, and supervising projects from contract award to completion. 


He underlines the significance of stakeholder interests and partnerships, expressing a sense of accomplishment in seeing a project through from design to implementation.


Duquette also addresses the challenge of managing multiple work zones, stating, “Most of our projects require coordination with other current and planned construction. It comes down to good communication through project Traffic Management Plans (TMP).”


What Lies Ahead?

The future of I-81is marked by multiple work zones and significant safety enhancements. Aging structures are being replaced, allowing for the widening of I-81 and improved shoulders. 


These projects aim to reduce congestion, traffic slowdowns, and accidents, ensuring smoother travel experiences for all.

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