Constant congestion on I-81: Are college students to blame?

by Deanna Driver-

Travelers drive on a relatively empty Interstate 81 in Christiansburg, Va. on Sunday, Jan. 29.  Photo by Deanna Driver, Jan. 29, 2023.

Around 48,000 vehicles pass through Virginia on Interstate 81 (I-81) in a given day, with 26-35% of that traffic being tractor trailers, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation. With this influx of people and large vehicles, 50% of delays on I-81 are due to accidents, compared to only 16% on other major Virginia highways. 

Congestion has long been an issue on I-81, especially in areas around Christiansburg and Roanoke. Dan Brugh, executive director of the New River Valley Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), said that interstates like I-495 in Northern Virginia have traffic more so because of volume, not accidents, like I-81.

I-81 cuts through the New River Valley (NRV), which has a population of around 180,000, via their informational site. Included is Virginia Tech, a large state-run university, which houses around 37,000 students and over 2,000 employees, according to their official website. With this many people only miles away from I-81, congestion linked to Virginia Tech students seems to be likely.

While approximately 100,000 students are on the I-81 corridor in Virginia, surprisingly, they don’t necessarily contribute much to accident statistics in the NRV specifically. However, Brugh did state that a lot of accidents on this major roadway can be attributed to “inexperienced drivers,” which is a category college students could arguably fall into.

This is not the case for every area in the state. Ann Cundy, Director of Transportation with the Central Shenandoah Planning District Commission, attributed congestion in the Harrisonburg area more to James Madison University (JMU), especially since the school straddles the major roadway, whereas Virginia Tech does not. 

“JMU employs nearly 3,000 people. They are what we call a major trip generator and attractor, so yes, JMU employees and others who live outside Harrisonburg and drive in each day contribute to congestion on I-81,” Cundy stated. 

Between the mile markers of 240-250 in Harrisonburg, there is significant congestion in the morning and evening, not only attributable to JMU, but also to large businesses in the area, such as the Cargill and Marshall plants. 

One of the main problem areas on I-81 in the NRV is from Christiansburg (exit 114) to Ironto (exit 128) going southbound. Here, the road is two lanes wide and twists through the mountains at differing grades with a speed limit recommending 65 miles per hour. 

Though constant congestion is an ongoing problem on many parts of I-81, there are solutions transportation experts have explored. According to the “Virginia Places” website, in 2019, former governor Ralph Northam proposed a toll system on I-81 that would provide funding for roadway improvement projects. This proposal was unfavorable for many, including locals and truckers, and ultimately, didn’t go through.

Despite Interstate 81 being the major roadway in the New River Valley, there are other alternative or connecting routes travelers can take to get from place to place that are likely to be less congested. Photo by Deanna Driver, Jan. 29, 2023.

Despite housing 29 universities/colleges on the I-81 corridor in Virginia, for the NRV, student and faculty runoff does not attribute to a large portion of stoppage concerns. Solutions do not include pushing for reduced student traffic on the roadway.

Ultimately, projects to improve I-81 and overall, reduce traffic incidents, will require a lot of funding and time to fully improve the vehicular flow in these highly congested areas. Transportation directors and officers are actively working to combat this problem and hope to find solutions in the upcoming years.

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