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State highway officials said the threat of a landslide above the construction zone was sufficiently reduced.
Friday, August 30, 2013
Interstate 81 is open again in Montgomery County.
The so-called “Daily Detour” — a recurring interstate rerouting that actually lasted about two days and nights this time — ended Thursday just before 5 p.m. after state highway officials decided that the risk of a landslide above an interstate construction zone was sufficiently reduced.
Workers hauled away rocks and dirt, and a row of logging trucks was parked as a shield between the construction area and southbound travel lanes near mile marker 124, said Jason Bond, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Transportation.
As for the crack in a rock face that prompted gridlock throughout eastern Montgomery County and western Roanoke County, Bond said it could not have been anticipated.
“The project is in mountainous terrain and things just happen, landslides happen,” he said.
Southbound traffic had been diverted from I-81 onto U.S. 11/460 between Dixie Caverns and Christiansburg. Routing traffic back to the interstate restored more normal travel times for tens of thousands of motorists.
“Thank God,” Texas-bound traveler Kathy Seis said when told that the interstate had reopened. Refueling in Christiansburg and bound from Maryland to her home south of Dallas, Seis figured she and her companions had lost about three hours in detour traffic. “We finally started jamming, waving to people sitting on their porches,” she said.
Monty Davis, who lives near Bluefield, W.Va., was trying to return from a visit to Lynchburg. It had taken more than two hours to get from Troutville to Christiansburg, he said.
“I know they got to do that stuff, but Lord, they got crews that do that stuff at nighttime other places,” Davis said.
Long-haul trucker Alonzo Mike was resting after hours in the detour. Told it was a not infrequent feature of the region’s travel, he grimaced. “This is my first time coming through it — I hated it,” Mike said. “If I’m sitting in traffic, I’m wasting time.”
Having finished the Christiansburg leg of his trip, Mike said he was turning north toward Michigan next — and was due there by 1 p.m. today. “I’ll start my clock soon,” he said with a grin.
The Virginia Department of Transportation calculates that about 60,000 vehicles travel the affected section of I-81 every day, while the New River Planning District reports about 7,800 people commute daily between Roanoke and the New River Valley.
Detours have become a regular part of life for interstate travelers and eastern Montgomery County residents for much of the past two years. As a $75 million interstate widening project blasted away mountainsides, traffic was shunted onto U.S. 11/460 for hours at a time nearly every day between August 2011 and June 2012, and less frequently since then.
Southbound traffic was routed off I-81 at Exit 132 and sent down U.S. 460/11 through Elliston and Shawsville. Then it climbed the slope known locally as Christiansburg Mountain and returned to the interstate at Exit 118.
The “Daily Detour,” as Bond termed it last year, was to end last summer, but continued at night and sometimes during the day as well.
The funneling of two lanes into one at the top of Christiansburg Mountain, coupled with regular wrecks, overheated or out-of-fuel trucks, and just the volume of traffic on community roads resulted in long delays for drivers in eastern Montgomery County.
Travel times of close to two hours between Salem and Christiansburg, about quadruple the usual duration, were common Tuesday and Wednesday.
A crash involving two tractor-trailers closed one lane of the detour soon after 8 a.m. Thursday and slowed traffic until midafternoon, police and highway officials reported.
The threat of a rockslide that prompted the latest detour has been known for months, Bond said.
In May, crews noticed a 50- or 60-foot crack about 75 feet up a 100-foot slope that was created as part of the construction of a climbing lane, Bond said.
Throughout the widening project, workers have struggled with giant boulders that were packed together as fill during the original construction of the interstate four decades ago. But the slope with the crack was newly cut and not in a fill area, Bond said.
“This could have happened on Interstate 81 anywhere. … It just depends on the material, the saturation of moisture. Things can happen to cause slopes to slide,” Bond said.
Dan Brugh of the Blacksburg/Christiansburg/Montgomery Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, a veteran of highway construction, said the region’s rocks tend to be fractured and cut with mud seams, which complicates road cuts and makes the sort of terraces seen elsewhere harder to create.
Bond said that after the crack at mile marker 124 was discovered, the interstate was closed for a day while new travel lanes were paved at a greater distance from the slope.
After that, “traffic has been using southbound Interstate 81 all these months shifted away from this unstable slope,” Bond said.
Highway crews planned to loosen the unstable material with explosives and cut the slope back. The plan was to slow traffic with rolling roadblocks as the blasts occurred rather than closing the interstate, Bond said.
But the fourth of those blasts, on Monday, caused the crack to lengthen to about 120 feet. Officials worried that if a slide happened, it would be large enough to reach the travel lanes.
On Tuesday, the southbound interstate was closed and traffic was sent onto U.S. 460/11.
Blasting on Wednesday morning failed to clear enough material, but two excavators working from the top of the slope were able to scoop away more and reduce the risk of a slide that would endanger motorists, Bond said.
Log trucks were parked to offer additional temporary protection as workers continue cutting back the slope, he said. Bond said the excavators’ work was too hazardous to perform at night.
Bond said he didn’t know the cost of all the work tied to the unstable slope, but said it will have to be borne by the contractor rather than taxpayers.
The lead contractor on the road-widening is Colorado-based CHM2 Hill, while Roanoke-headquartered Adams Construction and Faulconer Construction of Charlottesville are subcontractors.
Bond said the widening project is still expected to be completed on time this fall because as crews have worked on the unstable slope, other workers have continued paving elsewhere.
But the detours have delayed a separate project, the widening of U.S. 460/11 in the Roanoke County community of Glenvar, Bond said. The Glenvar project is east of the detour but has had far heavier-than-normal traffic from vehicles trying to get around slowdowns, Bond said.
More traffic in the work zone has slowed the project, and it will now be finished sometime in the spring rather than this fall, he said.
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