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Wider I-81 'crucial' to Berkeley County, W.Va.

June 16, 1998|By CLYDE FORD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - By 3 a.m. on most days, Mike Barth is driving north on Interstate 81 from his home in Hedgesville, W.Va., one of more than 110,000 motorists daily who take the highway in the Mountain State.

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From I-81 he hooks up with Interstate 70, which takes him to his bakery job in Frederick, Md.

Even in the early morning hours, there are times when the highway is crowded with tractor-trailers and other traffic.

That congestion has prompted West Virginia and other states along the I-81 corridor to consider plans to expand the highway.

"I'd say absolutely the expansion is needed," said Barth, 30.

His father, Sonny Barth, a tractor-trailer driver who frequently travels the interstate, agreed.

"I wouldn't say this is one of the busiest highways. It is the busiest," said Sonny Barth, 57, who has driven trucks for 30 years.

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"Sit out here at night. I'd bet you'd see a thousand trucks an hour and they all do 80 mph," Sonny Barth said.

West Virginia officials have logged 300 tractor-trailers an hour on I-81 in Berkeley County, Bruce DeHaven of the West Virginia Highways Division, said.

In Berkeley County, the state is working on a design to expand the highway from four lanes to six, a project that could take a decade to complete and cost millions of dollars.

Developer Bruce Van Wyk said expanding I-81 would make Berkeley County more attractive to businesses and homeowners.

"Expanding I-81 is absolutely crucial to the future of Berkeley County," Van Wyk said.

As Interstate 95 becomes more congested with traffic along the East Coast, business owners will look at locations along I-81 as potential locations from which they could quickly move their goods, Van Wyk said.

Companies will want assurances that I-81 will not be snarled with traffic, and expanding the four lanes to six will ensure that bottlenecks don't become a roadblock to new jobs, he said.

"It'll maintain the transportation advantage we have. I-81 is the economic spine of the region," Van Wyk said.

DeHaven said expanding I-81 to six lanes would have a significant impact.

"It's going to open it up as much as Interstate 81 did in the first place," DeHaven said. "People don't want to have to sit in traffic and people don't want bumper-to-bumper traffic. The more room people have, the more they like it."

DeHaven may know the 26-mile stretch of I-81 through West Virginia as well as anyone.

As a teenager, he did construction work on the highway during several summers in the late 1950s.

Now he's the I-81 supervisor for the Highways Division, responsible for maintaining and monitoring the four-lane interstate.

DeHaven estimated that preliminary work could take up to five years and construction could take an additional five to 10 years. During construction, one lane in each direction would be kept open, but there would be no way to get around the resulting bottlenecks, he said.

Part of the problem would be the bridges, DeHaven said.

Not only would the bridges have to be rebuilt to handle six lanes of traffic, but the overpasses would have to be reconstructed because the pier supports are not wide enough to handle more lanes, DeHaven said.

As far as expansion goes, he said he'd like to see the road expanded to eight lanes.

"It's going to be needed eventually. We might as well go ahead and do it," DeHaven said.

In some places the additional lanes would have to go into the median, DeHaven said. To make it safe, the north-south lanes would be separated by a barrier, he said.

One reason I-81 has become so busy is that Interstate 95 has become crowded, DeHaven said. Experienced drivers bypass I-95 as they head up the north-south corridor and take I-81 instead, he said.

Gregory Rush, 45, of Bunker Hill, W.Va., said the number of big rigs on I-81 can make it difficult to get on the highway.

"Trucks, trucks - I ain't ever seen so many trucks," Rush said.

"Expanding it would help. You've got a lot of accidents off the exits. Right now if someone doesn't get over in the other lane, you can't get over on the highway," Rush said.

David Hess, 23, of Martinsburg, said he drives I-81 almost daily to take his two children to the baby sitter.

One recent Saturday night, he was driving about 65 mph and got into the left-hand lane to pass a line of slower-moving vehicles. A tractor-trailer, high beams on, got behind him and rode his rear bumper.

"It was scary. I couldn't get over because of the other cars and I couldn't even see them to get over because of his lights shining in the back window. I was blind," Hess said.

If the highway had been six lanes wide, the truck could have moved to another land and passed him.

"It is an interstate for trucks, but it is also a road families have to commute on," Hess said.

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