$104.6 million project widening Interstate 81 over Potomac River is finished

Mike Lewis
Hagerstown Herald-Mail

Shane Burkett has been watching the Interstate 81 Potomac River bridge work from the cab of a tractor-trailer.

Now that the new third lanes are open in each direction, the semi driver likes what he sees.

Vehicles travel south on the Interstate 81 bridge over the Potomac River. The project to widen I-81 to three lanes over the river is now compete.

"I think it's great. I-81 is a massive highway. ... It's a big help having that third lane now," the Williamsport, Md., resident said.

The Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration formally announced completion of the $104.6 million project Feb. 11.

The work, which has been years in the making, widened the interstate from two lanes to three lanes in each direction from near Exit 23 in West Virginia, across the Potomac River to near Exit 1 in Maryland.

Burkett said the stretch of highway is often busy. The third lane is particularly helpful when one heavy truck is passing another, he said.

Many heavy trucks are equipped with devices that limit their top speeds to 63 mph or 65 mph, for example. That small difference in top speeds means other vehicles can get backed up behind the trucks, because it can take a long time for one truck driver to pass another.

"It's the best he can do," Burkett said.

The third lane provides another path for drivers who want to go faster, he said.

Burkett also credits I-81 for current and future growth, pointing to new warehouses in the Hagerstown area and new residential developments in Berkeley County, W.Va. That means more truckers, commuters and other travelers will be sharing the road.

"I don't see that going away anytime soon," he said of the growth. "Trying to do that on two lanes, I think, would be a nightmare."

'A lasting impact'

The original bridges were built in 1965, according to MDOT. While safe, they needed upgrades.

When construction began in 2016, traffic volume in the corridor was 63,400 vehicles a day — more than double the traffic of two decades earlier — with trucks accounting for 28% of that volume.

By 2035, daily I-81 volumes are projected to increase to 91,850 vehicles.

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Matt Mullenax, executive director of the Hagerstown/Eastern Panhandle Metropolitan Planning Organization, said it took years to turn the highway project from an idea into a reality.

He said it took coordination and cooperation from Maryland, West Virginia and federal agencies, as well as local officials and others, to get the project finished. 

An example was a covered walkway built under the bridges for walkers, runners and bicyclists using the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park towpath. The park is under the National Parks Service.

The walkway protected people on the towpath from anything that might fall from the construction overhead. Mullenax said it also became a popular spot for people to watch and take photos of the bridge.

"Even that structure fit in with the context of the park," he said.

“These improvements on I-81 have been more than two decades in the making and will have a lasting impact on interstate commerce and the lives of Marylanders and our neighbors throughout the region,” MDOT Secretary Greg Slater said in a MDOT news release. “This is a transformational project, and it couldn’t have happened without the invaluable partnership between Washington County, the West Virginia Department of Transportation, the National Park Service and our own dedicated team."

In the release, state Sen. Paul Corderman, R-Washington County, said the widened highway "will benefit commerce, tourism and overall quality of life for the citizens of Washington County.”

'A big help'

Throughout construction, MDOT tried to maintain two travel lanes in each direction of I-81. Triton Construction Inc. of St. Albans, W.Va., performed the work.

“Interstate 81 is the primary travel route between Maryland and West Virginia, and an important link of the region’s supply chain,” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said in the release.

In his job at Bowman, Burkett is a part of that supply chain.

He hauls a 48-foot-long flatbed trailer from Bowman's Williamsport complex to a company in Roanoke, Va., and brings a load of parts back to Williamsport. From there, another driver takes the trailer to a manufacturing plant near Allentown, Pa.

The completed work is the first of a four-phase project to upgrade and widen I-81 through Maryland, from West Virginia to Pennsylvania.

Burkett said he and many of his peers want to see all four phases done.

"It's a big help having three lanes," he said.