On Peninsula's I-64 stretch, one spot trumps them all for crashes

joreyes@dailypress.com

Michele Murray was driving past the Fort Eustis interchange on I-64 on her way to Williamsburg one day in 2007 when a tractor-trailer rammed into her rear bumper.

"Rubberneckers stopped traffic cold right at the top of the hill before the exit," she said. "I was able to stop, but the tractor-trailer behind me couldn't."

The tractor-trailer turned her car and pushed it into two other vehicles before running it over, demolishing it. Murray escaped with only minor injuries, she said, but that day remains the most frightening of her life.

Murray is one of hundreds of drivers who have been in accidents on I-64 near the Fort Eustis interchange. In fact, that portion of road includes the most crash-prone mile on the Peninsula's interstates, according to a Daily Press analysis of data from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles.

The data encompass 7,395 accidents that occurred between Jan. 1, 2011, and June 30, 2015. The accidents occurred on a 70-mile expanse of interstate that contains 33 exits and begins at the mouths of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel and Monitor-Merrimack Memorial Bridge-Tunnel, up through I-664 and I-64 to the Henrico County border.

The mile leading up to exit 250 on I-64 eastbound — the Fort Eustis interchange — is the most crash-prone on the Peninsula: 209 accidents occurred in that mile in the last four years. None of the crashes were fatal, but 50 resulted in injuries.

The second most dangerous segment? The eastbound mile approaching mile marker 267 on I-64, which crosses over the Hampton River about a mile before the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel. Of the 161 crashes that occurred in this mile, two were fatal and 43 caused injuries.

Across the median, the mile before mile marker 251, just ahead of the Fort Eustis interchange on I-64 westbound, is the third-most crash-prone spot on local interstates — 151 accidents, 30 resulting in injuries, occurred on this stretch of road.

On the westbound stretch of the interstate approaching exit 250 — where Murray's car was flattened by a big rig — there have been 55 accidents.

Of the 7,395 accidents, 42 were fatal, and 2,251 caused injury. The data didn't reveal a pattern to fatalities; no spot on the interstate had more than two deadly crashes.

Expansion project

The portion of I-64 containing the Fort Eustis Interchange is within the scope of an expansion project that began preparatory and survey work in March and is expected to last through December 2021. The project covers about 22 miles of highway and will be conducted in three segments.

The first segment stretches from exit 247 at Yorktown Road to exit 255 at Jefferson Avenue and includes the merge lanes connected to the Fort Eustis interchange. It's scheduled to be complete in December 2017.

The first segment, which will begin mid-September, will widen the outer shoulders of the road to accommodate emergency vehicles that need to bypass traffic, said Paula Miller, a Virginia Department of Transportation spokeswoman for the project. Acceleration and deceleration lanes at the exits will be lengthened, and the highway will be widened over the median by adding an interior lane and a 12-foot-wide shoulder to both directions.

"Improvements to I-64 are needed to address capacity and safety and to bring the existing roadway up to current design standards," said Jennifer Gwaltney, another VDOT spokeswoman.

The first segment is the most congested portion of the project, Gwaltney said. She added that the pavement is 50 years old and saw about 100,000 vehicles per day in 2014.

Dana Smith, a Williamsburg resident who has commuted to work at Naval Station Norfolk for 19 years, was involved in a crash on I-64 14 years ago.

Smith said when he started working in Norfolk, he "could make each leg of the commute of 46 miles in under an hour." Now, he regularly gets stuck in two-mile backups before the HRBT on his way to work and caught in congestion at Fort Eustis on his way home.

Smith supports the expansion because it will help drivers get past Fort Eustis, but said he didn't think drivers using the interchange would benefit until it was redesigned to separate the entrance and exit ramps, eliminating the merge lanes.

The Fort Eustis interchange itself will not be improved as a part of this project, Gwaltney said, but will be addressed in a separate effort. The Hampton Roads Transportation Accountability Commission proposed a complete reconstruction of the interchange to VDOT in 2014 — the proposal called for construction to start in 2019, after the second segment of the expansion project is complete.

The second segment extends the project west to exit 242 (Route 199 in York County). Construction is planned to begin in the winter of 2016 and last about two years. The construction will add an interior lane and shoulder to a five-mile stretch of road.

Newport News Mayor McKinley Price, an advocate for the project, said widening I-64 "will help with a lot of issues that we currently have with moving forward in the region."

In addition to relieving congestion, he said, widening the roadway could help improve air quality because vehicles would be stopped in traffic less frequently.

He also mentioned the project benefiting the military presence in the area because congestion around Fort Eustis could prompt the Army to move personnel.

Drivers could help, too

Despite being run down by a tractor-trailer, Murray said she didn't believe expanding the interstate was necessary. "Honestly, we could solve the traffic issues by requiring people to merge correctly and not wait until the last minute," she said. "Rubbernecking is a huge issue, too. People just generally don't pay attention."

The crash that Smith was involved in 14 years ago was a result of a driver not paying attention.

"There was something that happened up ahead, and all the traffic had to come to a complete stop. It was very sudden, everybody was braking hard," he said. Two cars back, the driver didn't stop, hitting the car behind Smith and pushing his car into another vehicle. "Two or three of us got taken to the hospital, and the cars were totaled," Smith said.

The accident occurred on I-64 near exit 261, where the interstate intersects Hampton Roads Center Parkway — about five miles east of the expansion project. According to the DMV's crash data, 57 accidents have occurred in the eastbound mile leading up to exit 261 since January 2011, making it the 29th most dangerous mile on the Peninsula interstates.

Smith recommended installing signs leading up to Fort Eustis and other trouble areas to warn drivers of frequent congestion.

"People who are not from the area and don't know the dangers of Fort Eustis aren't really thinking they're going to have to come to a stop," he said. "It only has to catch one person by surprise to cause an accident and tie up traffic."

Former Daily Press reporter Robert Brauchle contributed to this story.

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