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Leaders differ on future of I-81 traffic

July 28, 1999|By DAVE McMILLION, Charles Town

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Trucking and transportation officials say they are not worried about traffic congestion on Interstate 81 if West Virginia and Virginia expand the highway from four to six lanes before Maryland and Pennsylvania.

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A group of Hagerstown business leaders told regional lawmakers at a Quad-State Conference here Monday that they want legislators to work to expand I-81 to six lanes before traffic congestion becomes unmanageable.

The business leaders expressed concern that congestion on the road could be compounded when replacement of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge in Washington, D.C., begins within a year.

Traffic tie-ups caused by the bridge replacement could cause a lot of traffic from I-95 to switch to I-81 in search of a better route, the business leaders said.

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Jim Runk, president of the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association, said he believes truckers will continue to use I-95 to travel through the Washington and Baltimore areas because it is the best route through those areas. Runk, along with other transportation and trucking officials, said he doubts it would be beneficial for truckers to go 60 or 70 miles west to get on I-81 to avoid I-95 congestion.

A spokesman for The Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project, the organization overseeing the design of the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge, said there has not been any concern about the project causing congestion on other interstate such as I-81.

"It's not something we have looked at directly because I-81 is so far west from here," said James H. Lewis.

Six-lanes of the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge will be kept open during construction to keep traffic moving through the area, said Lewis.

"It's not as if they will close one bridge before opening another," said Lewis.

The Woodrow Wilson bridge carries I-95 and I-495 traffic across the Potomac River to southeast Washington, D.C. The $1.5 billion bridge replacement project is necessary because the current bridge is over capacity, said Lewis.

The bridge was opened in 1961 to handle 75,000 cars a day and now handles 190,000 cars a day, said Lewis.

The six-lane bridge will be replaced with dual bridges with a total of 12 lanes. Completion is set for 2006.

The Woodrow Wilson bridge project aside, there is not concern there will be bottlenecks on I-81 if some states have four lanes of travel on the interstate and other states have six, said Jim LaFemia, terminal manager for Overnite Transportation Co. in Williamsport.

The chief source of congestion on the interstate is when police have to shut down a lane to handle an accident, said LaFemia. The Potomac River bridge between West Virginia and Maryland could also be expanded because it is narrow for truck traffic, said LaFemia.

Although the amount of traffic on I-81 is growing, the flow is light many times during the day, Funk said.

"Eventually there may be a reason for concern. But I think it's a little premature," Funk said.

A member of The Greater Hagerstown Committee Inc. told regional lawmakers at the Quad-State Conference Monday that widening of I-81 is crucial if the highway is to handle the growth its is experiencing. Between 1993 and 1998, traffic volume increased 25 percent on I-81 and could grow by about 5 percent a year, said William S. Barton, a member of the committee and a Hagerstown attorney.

West Virginia has started work to expand I-81 to six lanes and Virginia has spent $17 million for engineering studies to begin expanding the that state's stretch of I-81 to six lanes. Maryland and Pennsylvania lawmakers said their states do not have the money to begin engineering studies to expand the interstate.

Sen. Don Munson, R-Washington, said not having the money for the engineering studies is disappointing.

Pennsylvania has been criticized for the condition of its roads and is concentrating on resurfacing 27 miles of I-81 in Cumberland County, said Terry Adams, district planning and program manager for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

After that project is completed, the department will focus on resurfacing five miles of I-81 in Franklin County and five miles in Dauphin County, said Adams.

Adams could not say whether efforts to expand I-81 in Pennsylvania have been speeded up.

Maryland transportation officials could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

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