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Gov. Ralph Northam ceremonially signs Interstate 81 funding legislation on Friday at the VDOT Salem Traffic Operations Center. The two bills will raise money for I-81 improvements and form a committee to steer the process.

Virginia Department of Transportation Commissioner Stephen Brich was en route from Richmond to the Roanoke Valley on Friday to discuss congestion relief when his vehicle came upon the kind of multi-vehicle crash notorious for clogging Interstate 81.

With southbound travel slowed by three crashes involving eight vehicles, Brich faced the possibility of missing a news conference about breakthrough I-81 legislation designed to reduce traffic jams like the one ahead.

But the Ford Explorer, which was also carrying two deputy secretaries of transportation, reached the function before it started thanks to an enhanced detour strategy that Brich hopes will receive statewide use. I-81 motorists who wanted to detour onto parallel U.S. 11 weren’t left to manage alone, but were assisted by flaggers.

“I think the reason we made it on time is because there were folks out there helping control the traffic and helping people detour around,” Brich said. “I want to have an incident management plan for every exit along the corridor that can accommodate detours off the interstate, route them onto a parallel facility and get them back onto it later in time.”

State lawmakers and Gov. Ralph Northam enacted higher fuel taxes and trucking industry fees that take effect July 1. They’re expected to fund $2.2 billion in construction and operational improvements on I-81 in Virginia.

Eventually, I-81 will have three northbound lanes between Blacksburg and exit 150. Southbound traffic on that stretch will have three lanes except between mile markers 137 in Salem and 128 in Ironto.

Beefed-up “incident management” is another part of the plan. Brich offered a case study that seemed to show it’s already working while still in testing.

Northam was in Salem to sign two bills raising money for I-81 improvements and forming a committee to steer the process. The ceremonial signing was witnessed by VDOT staff, some of the region’s lawmakers, business representatives and the media.

VDOT already staffs highway control centers plastered with wide-screen monitors that receive live video, which makes possible around-the-clock detection of wrecks. Fixed and portable message boards to alert motorists are also in use.

The new taxes will expand these systems, and will add personnel to go out to the highway and choreograph detours. The flaggers can step in so that if heavy interstate traffic runs smack into unbroken traffic on U.S. 11, motorists don’t face endless waits for a gap to cut in.

The flaggers will have authority to halt Virginia 11 traffic, making space for vehicles trying to get off the interstate. This technique created a functional detour for southbound interstate drivers affected by Friday’s wreck at mile marker 196 Rockbridge County without unduly delaying non-interstate traffic on U.S. 11, Brich said.

Brich said he was driving an unmarked state vehicle and did not believe that VDOT field personnel knew state officials were traveling on the highway. He waved his thanks and arrived at 10:55 a.m. for the 11 a.m event, he said.

Once the taxes kick in, officials have planned a new era of incident management. VDOT plans to establish a system to temporarily adjust the timing of traffic lights at key local intersections during interstate closures.

That way, weaving together interstate and local traffic should be even easier, officials said. Crews will widen intersections on U.S. 11 that might currently be a tight squeeze for a tractor-trailer pulling up from an interstate exit. Safety patrol trucks will patrol the highway in greater numbers, according to the plan.

Details of the plan can be found online at www.ctb.virginia.gov/resources/2019/apr/pres/3_i81.pdf.

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Jeff Sturgeon covers business, banking, transportation and federal court. Phone: (540) 981-3251. Email: jeff.sturgeon@roanoke.com. Mail: 201 W. Campbell Ave., Roanoke, VA 24011.

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