By IAN MUNRO
Daily News-Record 1/9/19
HARRISONBURG — Anticipation continues to build for Valley business leaders as state officials suggested tolls Tuesday to pay for improvements to Interstate 81.
Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam announced draft legislation to generate $2.2 billion for projects identified last year in a plan by the Commonwealth Transportation Board.
An announcement from Northam’s office said the legislation would be carried by state Sens. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, and Bill Carrico, R-Grayson, and Dels. Steve Landes, R-Weyers Cave, and Terry Austin, R-Botetourt. The announcement came one day before the General Assembly convenes its 2019 session. The CTB recommended improvements ranging from widening the interstate in certain locations, including Harrisonburg, to adding truck-climbing lanes. While toll fees are preliminary, the draft plan calls for allowing the drivers of cars and small trucks to buy an annual pass. The funding generated could only be used for projects in the I-81 corridor as outlined in the CTB plan.
Brian Shull, Harrisonburg’s economic development director, said more information is needed about the proposal, but any movement toward fixing the interstate is welcome. “We’ll be closely watching their deliberations and see if they can come up with a financing plan,” Shull said. “I’m going to wait and see at this point.” Shull said he will not be the only one monitoring the proposal as it goes through the legislative process.
“There are going to be a lot of voices weighing in,” he said. One of those voices belongs to Dale Bennett, the president of the Virginia Trucking Association, who opposes tolls. “The trucking industry is willing to pay its fair share and we are willing to support an increase in the diesel prices to meet revenue,” Bennett said. A regional sales tax increase is another option identified in the CTB’s year long study. One problem with tolls, Bennett said, is that truck drivers would use secondary highways to avoid paying them, leading to problems on those roads. “It’s what, unfortunately, independent and small trucking companies will have to do because they cannot absorb the cost [of the tolls],” he said. Alan Caviness, director of safety and risk management for Houff Transfer in Weyers Cave, said no funding solution will please everyone, but the cost should be distributed evenly by all interstate users.
“If it takes fixing with tolls,” Caviness said, “everybody’s got to pay, including out of state [drivers].”