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Officials say more lanes will be needed on I-81

March 09, 1999|By LAURA ERNDE

Transportation officials in three states say they are convinced that increased traffic on Interstate 81 eventually will lead to a need for more lanes.

Now the Quad-State I-81 Regional Task Force must win over federal officials who hold the purse strings.

As a first step, Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia have applied for a federal grant to study I-81 and two other north-south corridors that pass through Western Maryland.

The study would evaluate the practicality, cost, environmental impact and economic development potential of each corridor, said Neil J. Pedersen, director of planning and preliminary engineering for the Maryland State Highway Administration.

It would be a blueprint for how future federal highway dollars would be spent.

But the task force was disappointed that the study doubts the need for adding one lane in each direction of I-81.

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"I-81 is already a major north/south corridor. Its future upgrades and improvements need to be planned for, designed and addressed now. Maryland cannot lag behind waiting for a feasibility study to prove the obvious," Chairman James D. Latimer wrote to Maryland Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari last month.

Washington County Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook said, "It's a step in the right direction but it's not exactly what we wanted."

Virginia and West Virginia are way ahead on widening I-81.

Virginia has done a $17 million study on its 325 miles of the interstate.

In Berkeley County, W.Va., construction will begin this spring on the first of five I-81 improvements. By 2001, the interstate will have extra lanes between King Street and W.Va. 901.

While Maryland transportation officials recognize that I-81 is reaching its capacity, Pedersen said the best way to pursue the project is the objective study that has been proposed.

Pennsylvania has been the slowest of the four states to cooperate with the task force's goal.

"They'd like to see some more coordination from us but we're just not there yet," said Greg Penny, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

Rather than building more roads, Pennsylvania has been concentrating on smoothing over its notoriously bumpy ones. Plus, there are other interstates that are more congested than the section in southcentral Pennsylvania, Penny said.

The department estimates that 42,000 vehicles pass through the Chambersburg area every day, Penny said.

A 1997 study commissioned by the Hagerstown/Eastern Panhandle Metropolitan Planning Organization estimated the cost of widening the 13-mile Maryland portion of I-81 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.

The proposed feasibility study seeks to find the best north/south route between Maryland's Interstate 68 and West Virginia's Corridor H, Pedersen said.

The other north-south corridors are less developed than I-81.

U.S. 220 passes through Cumberland and U.S. 219 goes further west through the Deep Creek area of Garrett County.

If funded by the Federal Highway Administration, the study would begin this summer, Pedersen said.

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