Housekeeping measures dominate first I-81 advisory meeting

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LEXINGTON, Va. (WHSV) — No substantive action was taken during the first meeting of the group of state lawmakers and other leaders tasked with developing a plan to implement more than $2 billion in improvement projects along Interstate 81.

The meeting took place in a packed hotel conference room in Lexington on Tuesday afternoon. While the public was invited to attend, Del. Terry Austin (R-Va.19th) — who was selected to serve as chair of the committee — announced toward the end of the meeting that the gathering wasn't intended for public input and he urged the three people who wanted to speak to keep their comments short.

Committee members were refreshed on the funding mechanisms for the improvements approved by the General Assembly last spring, including registration fees on trucks and a 2.1 percent increase in the fuels tax along the corridor.

Of the $2.2 billion in improvements proposed by state transportation officials as part of a 2018 report, $838 million will go toward projects in the Staunton VDOT district (which includes the counties of Augusta, Rockingham, Shenandoah and Frederick, as well as the cities of Staunton, Harrisonburg and Winchester.)

John Lawson, the Deputy Secretary of Transportation, told the committee by using a "pay-as-you-go" option, it would take 14 years to complete the work. Another option, however, would involve leveraging the money through bonds — which would cut the wait by a few years.

Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Va. 26th) and Del. Tony Wilt (R-Va. 26th) showed support for the second option.

"To be able to bond those things, to get the process going faster, that's what citizens are looking for," said Wilt. "They don't want to hear, 'well, this is going to be four or five years down the road.' That's unacceptable. We need to be working on things now."

VDOT's chief engineer also provided the committee an overview of aspects considered when proposed fixes are evaluated, including a project's readiness and environmental impact.

At the end of the meeting, Del. Wilt urged those in attendance to contact their federal representatives. Rep. Ben Cline and Senators Kaine and Warner were not in attendance.

"They have their own things they're working on but my comment was simply to remind them, and they're fully aware," said Wilt. "So I know it's on their radar, we just need to keep it on their radar."

No future meeting was scheduled for the committee but the amendment by Gov. Northam that was responsible for its creation called for four meetings every fiscal year.