Friday, December 8, 2023

Does the I-64 widening project make an impact on tourism?

The Virginia Department of Transportation has issued its weekly lane closures for December. (Courtesy VDOT)
The I-64 widening project is comprises three sections. (Courtesy VDOT)

You’ve seen it: A tightly-packed herd of red brake lights, nearly motionless on the interstate and stretching to the horizon, obscured by the exhausts of thousands of vehicles and the dust kicked up by construction workers.

Crews have been working on Interstate 64 since September 2015 as part of the I-64 Widening Project, which will add a lane in each direction between Lightfoot and Jefferson Avenue.

Locals feel the traffic impacts of the I-64 Widening Project, as interstate ramp and lane closures, detours and delays pop up each week.

Do the tourists who spur the local economy consider the interstate traffic when deciding whether to plan a vacation to the Historic Triangle?

Right now, it’s too soon to say.

“I don’t know that we’ve asked that specific question,” said Bob Harris, interim executive director for the Williamsburg Tourism Council within the Greater Williamsburg Chamber and Tourism Alliance.

Harris said GWCTA has not studied the issue of interstate traffic specifically, but in 2013 the Williamsburg Area Destination Marketing Committee, which managed a regional marketing fund and tourism campaigns, asked tourists what they perceive to be the biggest obstacle to visiting the area.

“It didn’t seem to be an issue,” Harris said about I-64 traffic.

However, that was before the Virginia Department of Transportation broke ground on the widening project.

The Virginia Tourism Corporation also has not studied I-64 traffic impacts on tourism, said Esra Calvert, director of research for VTC.

Harris said GWCTA will hear complaints from travelers about traffic in and around Washington, D.C.

“I don’t hear as much as far as complaints in our immediate area, and I think part of that may be our visitors are from a lot of large metropolitan areas in the northeast,” Harris said. “Even the I-64 traffic we have on a bad day is not that bad for them.”

It’s also possible that GWCTA will begin to research interstate traffic and its influence on tourists as the Tourism Council begins to take shape.

The Tourism Council, a committee of GWCTA, was created this summer per Senate Bill 942. The bill will generate millions of dollars in funding through a 1 percent increase in state sales tax in the Historic Triangle. The funds are earmarked for tourism promotion and will be administered through the Historic Triangle Office of Marketing and Promotion, which is overseen by the Tourism Council.

Jeffrey Wassmer, a York County Supervisor and chairman of the Tourism Council, said a priority for the council is measuring the council’s success in drawing tourists to the region and in overcoming travel-related obstacles, such as the widening project or limited airfare options.

That means, moving forward, they will need to track the number of overnight stays in local hotels, motels and timeshares, as well as tallying admission totals and revenue at local attractions.

“The big thing with this money, is if we’re not moving the needle and not making a difference, we need to give the money back,” Wassmer said. “Data and data analytics will help us make better decisions.”

Wassmer said it’s currently unclear if traffic and construction on I-64 deters potential visitors, but collecting better data could provide an answer.

One of the Tourism Council’s goals is to make the region more accessible and attractive, Wassmer said, and completing the widening project would contribute to both.

In the meantime, delays on I-64 may just be something residents and tourists alike just have to deal with.

“If they get on 64 and traffic is a problem…it just sets the vacation off on the wrong mode,” Wassmer said.

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