Committee passes bill to fund I-81 improvements, re-examine funding

WEYERS CAVE, Va. (WHSV) — A bill introduced by Delegate Steve Landes to fund long-needed improvements for Interstate 81 passed out of the House Transportation Committee on a 22-0 vote Thursday.

House Bill 2718 would establish the Interstate 81 Corridor Improvement Fund and Program.

Based on the conclusions of the I-81 Corridor Improvement Plan, Landes' bill would create a fund for the sole purpose of "capital, operating, and other improvement costs" related to improvement projects for Interstate 81.

The initial version of the bill established that money for that fund would come from tolls, which the bill authorized the Commonwealth Transportation Board to impose on the interstate.

But a substitute version introduced by Landes and passed by the committee on Jan. 31 establishes the fund and, rather than imposing tolls, tasks officials with continuing to examine possible funding options, like tolls or fuel taxes.

It creates an "Interstate 81 Committee," which would have the power to review the published I-81 Corridor Improvement Plan and consider funding options. The committee would have to issue a final report to the General Assembly by December 15 of 2019 with its recommendations for funding and prioritization of projects.

The bill establishes that that committee would have 15 members, including Virginia lawmakers, members of the Commonwealth Transportation Board, and the chairs of each planning district commission along the corridor.

Trucking companies in the Valley tell WHSV that tolls on I-81 would affect them disproportionately and lead to a rise in prices for the products they carry.

They instead support plans introduced by Sen. Emmett Hanger and Sen. John Edwards that would levy sales tax on fuel sold along the I-81 Corridor and deposit the money from that tax into a fund for I-81 improvements. A similar bill passed in the Senate last year, but did not make it to law.

At the start of 2018, a group of 16 Virginia lawmakers sent a letter to Virginia's Congressional Delegation (comprised of Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warners, as well as Reps. Bob Goodlatte, Barbara Comstock, and Morgan Griffith) asking for federal assistance to improve the interstate.

The letter asked for money to support adding "an additional travel lane at important safety pinch points."

Congressman Bob Goodlatte responded to the letter, saying he understood the concerns about the interstate, and that VDOT would need to address most of them and that he would help Virginia lawmakers apply for federal grants, like the Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) grant program.

Ben Cline, who replaced Goodlatte at the start of this year, says he would support the use of federal money to fix some problems with Interstate 81 through an infrastructure package.

However, with no federal funding plan currently in the works, the Commonwealth Transportation Board's plan to impose tolls, proposed in bill form by Sen. Mark Obenshain and Del. Steve Landes for the approval of the General Assembly, has bipartisan support.

The tolls, as planned in the original draft of the bill, would not impact commuters, but will impact those who drive longer distances on I-81.

For cars, a $25 toll was proposed with a possible $30 annual pass for cars only. The proposed toll for trucks is $50. All of those rates would need to be finalized by the General Assembly, however. Tolls would be applied to any vehicle that travels through two tolling stations, which would be spread out over long distances on the interstate.

Where those cameras would be placed would have to be decided by the Interstate 81 Committee.

The Virginia Department of Transportation has reported a 12% increase in traffic on I-81 around Harrisonburg in the past five years, and delays have increased by 55%.

The agency also determined that 42% of Virginia's truck traffic volume is on I-81 and, in parts of the interstate through the Shenandoah Valley, 20 to 30% of the total traffic volume consists of trucks.

“We have a tremendous opportunity to address longstanding issues on the I-81 Corridor,” said Senator Mark Obenshain. “I will continue to work with the Northam administration and with my colleagues in the General Assembly in hope that we can find bipartisan solutions to the critical reliability and safety issues in this region of the Commonwealth.”

Landes said any additional funding for improvements beyond the $2.2 billion estimated in the I-81 Corridor Improvement Plan will need to come from the federal government.

“It’s an interstate system, not an ‘intra-state’ system,” Landes said earlier this month.

Both the House of Delegates and the Senate will need to approve any potential tolls or taxes before they can take effect.

The Senate version of the bill approved in the House Transportation Committee remained in the Senate Finance Committee as of Thursday afternoon. It's unclear when HB 2718 will go before the full House of Delegates.

An initial version of this article incorrectly stated that the version of House Bill 2718 passed by committee on Jan. 31 would establish tolls to found improvements on Interstate 81. That original article did not take into account the substitute version of the bill introduced and passed, which eliminated wording that would have authorized the Commonwealth Transportation Board to impose tolls. The article was updated shortly after publishing to reflect the content of the substitute bill.