Travel and tourism officials are bracing themselves with optimistic uncertainty over how Interstate 64 construction in the greater Williamsburg area will affect visitation this summer.
Both the Virginia Department of Transportation and AAA Tidewater are embarking on campaigns to make the public aware of the ongoing construction through a 13.3 mile stretch of I-64, which is expected to take several years to complete.
The Greater Williamsburg Chamber and Tourism Alliance, though, is walking a narrow balance beam between traffic transparency and touting tourism opportunities.
"We're not going to make a big deal about it on our tourism sites," said alliance president Karen Riordan, "because we feel like if we draw undue attention to it, then tourists may just decide, 'Hmm, let's not go to this part of Virginia at all this year. Let's wait for the construction to be done. Let's go to Orlando.'"
That wait will go to at least 2019, and with the potential for another eight miles if VDOT gets funding for it, it could be a few years longer. VDOT is widening the highway from four lanes to six, with a shoulder lane to be added in each direction. The work is moving east to west.
The first segment of I-64 construction, which started in September 2015, spans about 5.6 miles from Route 143 and Jefferson Avenue at Exit 255 in Newport News to just east of Route 238 at Yorktown Road at Exit 247. VDOT has shifted traffic lanes from concrete pavement to the new travel lanes in the median of the road.
Paving will continue in this first segment, along with continued construction on a pair of bridges. A noise barrier wall and ramp extensions, and sight distance clearing will take place until the work on the segment is complete by about December.
The work in the 7.7-mile second segment — from Yorktown Road to about a mile past Route 199 at Humelsine and Marquis Center parkways — began in fall 2016. Motorists should not notice much difference in the work between the two segments.
VDOT is beginning to install lane shifts, construction signs and temporary pavement markings in the second segment of the project, with that work continuing throughout the summer, according to VDOT spokesperson Brittany McBride.
The final segment of work will be to widen I-64 from from Humelsine and Marquis Center parkways at Exit 242 to near Route 199 at Newman Road at Exit 234 near the New Kent county line, an 8.2 mile stretch of interstate. VDOT will hold a design public hearing May 18 at Bruton High School and is working with the Hampton Roads Transportation Accountability Commission to obtain funding for it.
A contract for the final segment is not expected to be awarded until winter 2018.
All that work will keep many people in occasional backups. But preliminary indications are that it hasn't hurt the region's restaurants, hotels and attractions so far.
"The feedback that I'm receiving is that it's been a very robust, very healthy April," Riordan said. "And that is a nice harbinger of what we hope is going to be a strong summer."
McBride says VDOT plans a radio and billboard advertising campaign targeting travelers from the Richmond or Washington D.C. areas, as well as Southside Hampton Roads, of the work taking place in the Historic Triangle.
"This campaign will be informing them of the construction work underway and providing alternative routes to help navigate through the corridor," McBride said, "whether they are visiting the Historic Triangle or traveling through to the Southside."
Some of those alternative means could include Route 60, which runs mostly parallel to I-64 to its west as well as Route 143, which slinks back and forth on both sides of the interstate, and Route 17 to Colonial Parkway, which runs east of the interstate.
"Folks are going to need to keep an eye out," said Georjeane Blumling, AAA Tidewater vice president of public relations. "What we try to do if we're planning travel for folks at their branches, we tell them the direct routes, we give them the alternative routes and then, a lot of times, (we tell them) to use their maps on their phone or online, because it really depends on time of day and day of the week and things like that."
At times, though, Blumling said it won't matter what you do, you'll be stuck in traffic and burning gas, with those prices expected to continue to climb slowly for much of the summer before leveling off and going down again around Labor Day. She expects prices to approach $2.50 per gallon during the height of the summer.
"There are folks in the local area, and they would avoid travel, possibly, on Fridays and Sundays," Blumling said. "Obviously that's when the corridor on I-64 is going to be the most crowded. And it really doesn't matter which way you're going."
Riordan says the area is open for business, but cautions that travelers should keep their tempers in check and be patient.
"We're cautiously optimistic that we're going to be able to move through what we plan to be a pretty robust summer season without having a lot of really negative traffic effects," Riordan said. "There will be jams, there will be heavy volumes some times. That's to be expected. But frankly, from our perspective at the tourism alliance and the chamber, we'd rather have that than the alternative."
LaRoue can be reached by phone at 757-345-2342.
These tools can help. All apps are available for both Android and Apple.
•Virginia 511 app, will provide real-time traffic conditions on major roads throughout Virginia.
•Google Maps or the Waze app for maps to direct you through the area. Both provide updates on highway troublespots. VDOT's overhead signage on both east and westbound I-64 will also alert travelers to delays or road issues.
•VDOT's I-64 widening website, at i64widening.org.