By JESSICA WETZLER
Daily News-Record 1/9/19
HARRISONBURG — Gov. Ralph Northam rolled out a bipartisan proposal Tuesday for $2.2 billion in improvements along Interstate 81, which would be paid for in part by highway tolls.
To make that happen, legislation establishing the Interstate 81 Corridor Improvement Fund must make its way through the General Assembly, which convenes today for the 2019 session.
The proposed legislation comes after a yearlong study sponsored by Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham. 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.
Obenshain, Sen. Bill Carrico, R-Grayson, Dels. Steve Landes, R-Weyers Cave, and Terry Austin, R-Botetourt, co-sponsored bills in the General Assembly for the proposed improvement fund. Northam said in a press release Tuesday that it’s time legislators take decisive action to enhance the safety and improve the reliability of I-81.
“I am committed to working with legislators on both sides of the aisle to establish a dedicated funding source that will support the critical improvements that Interstate 81 needs to move goods and people around the Commonwealth,” Northam stated.
Although improving I-81 has long been a concern, the issue received renewed emphasis in 2017 and 2018, as lawmakers became frustrated over a lack of action. They complain that long stretches of the interstate have become congested and dangerous as traffic volume continues to grow, leading to an increasing number of serious crashes and long delays.
The Virginia Department of Transportation found many of the CTB’s recommended improvements are within the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Salem and Staunton districts. The Staunton District includes Harrisonburg and Rockingham County.
In a Jan. 25, 2018, letter, 17 state delegates and senators, including those who represent the Valley, wrote to members of Virginia’s congressional delegation asking them to work with the Trump administration to improve I-81. The Valley lawmakers said the interstate needed an additional travel lane “at important safety pinch points,” which would require federal funding.
The proposal announced by the governor Tuesday would establish tolling gantry’s along I-81 that would have a verifying rate for trucks and cars depending on the time of day. According to the CTB’s report, the auto rate from 6 a. m. to 9 p. m. could be 7.5 cents per mile and 5 cents from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. Tolls for trucks could be as high as 15 cents a mile during the day and 7.5 cents at night. Obenshain said he would only carry the bill with two conditions: creating an annual pass for $25 for unlimited miles or a commuters pass for $5 for those who are local; and exempting motorists who do not pass by two gantries during their commute.
The burden of funding the improvements should not weigh on locals, but on out-of-state truckers who should “pay their fair share” on the wear-and-tear of the corridor, Obenshain said. Congress, in funding it allocates to states as well as through U.S. Department of Transportation dollars, also figures to play a role in paying for improvements to the interstate, a federal highway.
“We are looking at our colleagues in Washington,” Obenshain said. “We certainly hope that our partners will step up to get appropriate federal funding. We have to do something.”U.S. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge, said Tuesday that he is keeping up with what the governor is proposing, but is trying to address the issues on I-81 at the federal level. He said he has requested to be a part of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, but the committee has not sent out assignments at this time.
How much drivers would be charged for tolls is still being debated, with a number of variables to consider, such as traffic congestion and an option for locals to opt out of the tolling, Landes said.
“We want to continue working with federal representatives and are still looking at other options to get support from the General Assembly,” he said. “Tolling is a good starting point and I feel very good that there is support on this legislation.”
Landes said he is keeping his options open in regards to funding the proposal, saying he could see a gas tax component as well.
“I want to see something done this session,” he said. “We are taking this seriously and are making this a priority.”
Del. Tony Wilt, R-Broadway, said Tuesday that fixing I-81 is an overarching issue and he’s pleased to see the governor taking an interest. Wilt said he’s open to all suggestions regarding funding, including tolls. “I am seeing some positive movement here,” he said. “Tolling is one of several suggestions, but my main concern is that the money stays for the purpose.”
Kim Sandum, transportation lead with the Alliance for the Shenandoah Valley, released a statement in response to Northam’s proposal stating the Alliance applauds the Valley legislators and Northam for moving to address the critical improvements needed for I-81.
“We support immediate safety improvements and maximum flexibility for long-term investments, rather than a costly one-size fits-all approach for the entire 300-mile long corridor,” Sandum said. “Valley residents should not be asked to pay more without assurances that they will have a strong voice in decisions about I-81 improvements. We look forward to reviewing the details in the legislation.” If approved by the General Assembly, the corridor could see work by next year, Landes said.