Blame game after lawmakers fail to find funding for I-81 improvements

Published: Feb. 25, 2019 at 6:26 PM EST
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State lawmakers signed off last week on a measure to create the Interstate 81 Corridor Improvement Fund. The final agreement, however, lacked one major component — a revenue source to pay for more than $2 billion in recommended improvements.

"We came in here with the idea of fixing I-81 and we've done nothing. Nothing," said Sen. John Edwards (D-Roanoke).

Bills introduced in the General Assembly this session would have paid for the improvements through tolls or an increase in the fuel tax. The legislation to increase the amount drivers pay at the pump was transformed into a study into finding funds through fuel-efficient and electric vehicles — but it did not pass in enough time to be fully considered by both chambers.

Other ideas involving tolls and a tax on diesel did not find enough support.

Del. Steve Landes placed blame on the trucking and manufacturing industries, both of which he said were opposed to the ideas.

"You can't have your cake and eat it, too," said Del. Landes (R-Augusta). "You either have to be for something, you can't always be against something."

Dale Bennett, the President and CEO of the Virginia Trucking Association, said on Monday those in the trucking sector were not given the details of the plan to raise taxes on diesel — only a summary.

"None of that information, none of the proposals, none of what was being discussed was shared with us nor were we ever invited to participate in those discussions," Bennett said.

Bennett said the concern of the VTA lies in the potential impact of an increased financial burden on the trucking industry on Virginia's reputation for attracting business.

"We're open to discussing any option and long as it doesn't begin with the premise that the trucking industry and our customers are going to pay 100 percent of the cost," he said.

A study last year, issued by the Commonwealth Transportation Board, explored the options of using tolls and increasing the fuels tax to pay for the fixes to the interstate.

Del. Landes said increasing taxes on automobile drivers is not popular.

The Republican said it remains possible Governor Ralph Northam could make amendments to the measure passed by the General Assembly. If not, any progress on fixing congestion problems along Interstate 81 will be pushed back at least another year.

"The public's frustrated. I think those of us who actually tried to do something this session are frustrated," he said.