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Group wants to study widening I-81

May 19, 1998|By STEVEN T. DENNIS

A four-state group of business and political leaders plans to lobby Congress for $6 million to $7 million in federal money for a study on widening Interstate 81 from Harrisburg, Pa., to Winchester, Va.

The Quad State I-81 Improvement Task Force met Monday at the Four Points Hotel in Hagerstown to discuss a strategy for securing funding for the congested highway.

"I think long-range it's the singular most important project for this valley," said L. Michael Ross, executive director of the Franklin County Area Development Corp.

The need for improvements has been sparked by a tripling of traffic in the past 30 years. Trucks make up as a much as 40 percent of the traffic, and the interstate was designed for 15 percent truck traffic.

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Ross said that additional lanes would increase safety and allow continued economic growth.

"It is becoming a far more dangerous road," he said.

Congestion will become more of an issue with continued economic development, Ross said.

"Each time that you build another million square feet for distribution you have literally hundreds of more trucks that are going to be on the road, and that affects everyone," he said.

James Latimer, vice president of corporate affairs for Allegheny Power and chairman of the group, said the study would determine how many additional lanes and interchange improvements would be needed to meet growth expected through 2020.

Latimer said the group wants to get funds from the federal Building Efficient Surface Transportation and Equity Act, or BESTEA.

The focus now is to lay the groundwork by lobbying state legislators, governors and local leaders for support, Latimer said.

"We have to get everybody on board," he said.

The funding would go through the House Transportation Committee, which is chaired by U.S. Rep. Bud Shuster, R-Pa., whose district includes Franklin County.

Virginia is finishing up a $17 million study of 325 miles of I-81 in that state.

Fred Kiiffner, engineer program supervisor for the Virginia Department of Transportation, said that when the study is complete, projects will be prioritized and put in the state's six-year construction plan.

West Virginia officials are studying an upgrade of its bridges to six lanes.

Neither Maryland nor Pennsylvania has funding set aside for such a study.

Dennis Yoder, a regional planner for the Maryland State Highway Administration, said widening the interstate is in the state's long-range plan but isn't funded.

Yoder said the traffic on I-81 at the West Virginia and Pennsylvania borders with Maryland is about 35,000 vehicles a day. That figure is about 60,000 vehicles per day near Hagerstown.

Dave Miner, assistant planning and program manager at the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, said adding lanes to Interstate 81 is not in the state's long-term plans.

"Pennsylvania has a maintenance-first philosophy," he said.

The state is designing $60 million in road resurfacing improvements along that stretch of the interstate, he said.

Even if the group is successful, it probably will be at least eight to 10 years before lanes would be added, Latimer said. A study would take 18 months to two years.

A 1997 study commissioned by the Hagerstown/Eastern Panhandle Metropolitan Planning Organization estimated the cost of widening I-81 to six lanes in Maryland at $95.3 million.

Widening I-81 from the West Virginia-Maryland border past Martinsburg would cost another $73.8 million, according to that study.

Among the people attending the meeting were state legislators and their representatives from the four states, state highway officials and members of the Greater Hagerstown Committee Inc.

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