I-81 Cedar Creek Bridge Project Threatens National Battlefield Park

The Shenandoah Valley is facing a new threat to historic and natural resources with the Virginia Department of Transportation’s (VDOT) plan to replace the northbound bridge on I-81 over Cedar Creek near Strasburg, in the heart of the Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historic Park and adjacent to protected private lands within the Cedar Creek Battlefield core area.

VDOT’s Project Early Notification states that the existing two-lane bridge will be replaced by a new two-lane bridge and that the pavement width will increase from 30 to 40 feet. But if the new bridge is built to the “ultimate profile” outlined in the I-81 plan approved by federal officials in 2007, it could mean three or more new lanes at the Cedar Creek site. Recent new bridges on I-81 in Rockbridge County were built five lanes wide.

VDOT notified the National Park Service, Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation, Belle Grove Plantation and Shenandoah County in December of the bridge replacement on I-81. The preservation partners already are engaged in efforts to convince the agency to scale back plans for bridge replacement on Route 11 at Cedar Creek, close to the I-81 project site, in order to reduce the impacts on the park, protected lands and other resources.

The bridge site is adjacent to private land protected by funding from public sources. The Battlefield Foundation’s John D. Hutchinson noted in a recent letter to VDOT that the public Land and Water Conservation Fund dollars used to acquire the land require the approval of the U.S. Secretary of the Interior before any encroachment for highway expansion can be permitted.

Shenandoah Valley Network (SVN) has long objected to the excessive highway widening called for in the corridor plan for I-81, wherein even simple safety improvements are constructed to the “ultimate profile” of eight to ten or more lanes.

For example, a recent project described as a single new seven-mile truck climbing lane northbound in Rockbridge County led to paving three new lanes, even though only one new lanes is marked for travel, at a cost of $83 million (almost $12 million per mile.)

Even single bridge projects can have significant impacts on surrounding lands. When bridges of the Maury River and Buffalo Creek in Rockbridge County were replaced several years ago the new bridges were built five-lanes wide (70 feet) but striped for two lanes.

The Cedar Creek bridge project is of particular concern because of its proximity to the I-81/I-66 interchange a mile north. The I-81 plan calls for any improvements that connect I-81 to  another interstate highway to be from six to ten lanes plus shoulders, in each direction. Counting shoulders, this would amount to a loss of between 150 and 300 feet within the Cedar Creek Civil War Battlefield for new pavement.

In 2014, SVN, Shenandoah Forum and our preservation partners will scrutinize the proposed bridge project and any planning r the I-66 interchange. It also may interest the state lawmakers in the Northern Shenandoah Valley I-81 Legislative Caucus, which intends to call for more cost-effective options for the I-81 corridor, with far fewer impacts on local communities and natural and historic resources.