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Interstate 81 project may cost less than expected

September 05, 2002|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

The cost of improving Interstate 81 in Maryland has dropped and far fewer homes may be lost than had been expected, a state highway official said Wednesday.

"We have been reconfiguring to reduce the impact," said Sue Rajan, a senior project manager with the Maryland Department of Transportation's State Highway Administration.

An earlier interchange improvement plan called for up to 43 homes to be taken, but that number has dipped to about three or four, Rajan said.

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Rajan spoke Wednesday morning at an Eggs and Issues breakfast at the Plaza Hotel near Valley Mall. The breakfast was organized by the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce's Business and Community Development Committee.

Maryland officials are studying the best way to fix up the state's 12 miles of Interstate 81 as they deteriorate. At the same time, officials in West Virginia and Pennsylvania are working on improvement plans for their own stretches of the highway.

A public hearing on the Maryland plan is expected to be held next year. Rajan said it will take another two or three years to have the plan approved and two or three more years to design it.

In October 2001, a project team determined that there is a need for improvements.

Traffic projections show that the heavily traveled highway will become even busier in the next two decades.

The average daily traffic in 1999 was 30,000 to 62,000 vehicles, depending on the section, according to the State Highway Administration. Under the current conditions, the average is expected to roughly double in 20 years.

State Highway Administration statistics show that there were 276 vehicle accidents on Interstate 81 in Maryland from 1998 to 2000. About one-third involved heavy trucks.

Seven accidents involved fatalities, creating a higher rate than exists in the rest of the state.

Rajan said the project team has recommended scrapping a plan to widen the interstate on the outside, leaving three options: Widen the interstate on the inside, improve the interchanges or do nothing other than routine maintenance.

Under the outside widening proposal, four businesses and 44 homes might have been taken, many of them in the Lakeside Mobile Home Park off Halfway Boulevard, according to the State Highway Administration.

People upset by that plan protested during a public meeting in June.

The original estimated cost of that project was $425 million to $430 million.

The State Highway Administration previously pegged the price of the interchange improvement at $210 million to $215 million and the cost of widening the interstate on the inside at $315 million to $320 million.

All three price estimates included collector-distributor roads, which would run parallel to the main highway, similar to how they do at the current interchange at Interstates 81 and 70. Collector-distributor roads are said to eliminate weaving and reduce the need to enter and exit the main highway.

Without collector-distributor roads, the interchange improvements option and the inside widening option would each drop by $60 million and the outside widening option would drop by $40 million.

Rajan said the project team recommended cutting back on the proposed work and costs for each option, but new estimates won't be known for about two months.

An early proposal included collector-distributor roads roughly between U.S. 40 and U.S. 11, but a newer plan has them running from Interstate 70 to Halfway Boulevard, Rajan said.

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