RICHMOND — Drivers on Interstate 81 in Virginia aren’t likely to have pay tolls anytime soon.
The General Assembly has made clear recently that there is little appetite to move forward with a plan Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam and some Republican lawmakers tentatively backed before the session started to add tolls to Virginia’s 325-mile stretch of the interstate.
Legislators are moving forward with a plan to create a special account to hold money to make about $2 billion in improvements on the highway, without saying how the account would be funded. Lawmakers said they will continue conduct a yearlong study to find the best way to come up with the funding.
The move is a blow to Northam and some lawmakers who said last month that it was critical for the state to find a way to make improvements on the highway. They said I-81
is too often the scene of long delays because of crashes and a dedicated source of funding is urgently needed to make improvements.
“The do-nothing crowd is prevailing,” said state Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham. “We’ve got lots of people who claim to want improvements but none of them are coming forward with serious proposals to fund them.”
Northam has called the highway a “clear safety problem.”
There are more than 2,000 crashes on the road each year, with more than a quarter involving heavy trucks. There are about 45 major crashes a year that take more than four hours to clear.
It appeared early last month there was bipartisan support for moving forward with a toll proposal that would have charged trucks about 15 cents a mile and cars about 7.5 cents a mile.
The proposal came after a yearlong study of ways to improve I- 81 and how to pay for them. The Commonwealth Transportation Board, which conducted the study, concluded its work with a list of recommendations to bring needed improvements to the heavily traveled corridor, which runs 325 miles in Virginia from the West Virginia border in the north to Tennessee in the south.
Recommendations range from widening the interstate in certain locations, including Harrisonburg, to adding truck-climbing lanes. But intense lobbying from the business community and trucking groups against tolls helped derail those plans. Virginia Manufacturers Association CEO Brett Vassey said businesses would pay a disproportionate share of the costs if tolls were added to the road. He said the business community is committed to improving I-81 and willing to consider a host of ideas, including raising the state’s wholesale
“We want a solution as fast as anybody,” Vassey said Bob Roberts, a James Madison University political science professor, said another yearlong study would not change anything.
“This issue has been going on for decades,” Roberts said. “Bottom line is that the federal trust fund is running out of money and generating less tax dollars, making the only option to be tolling.”
Frank Tamberrino, president of the Harrisonburg- Rockingham Chamber of Commerce, said he was not sure what new information would come out of a second study.
“It does give more time to understand it, but finding a funding source isn’t as important as getting something done,” Tamberrino said. “Just try to get something done.”