Virginia lawmakers approve fuel tax, truck registration fees for I-81 improvements

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SALEM, Va. (WHSV) — UPDATE (April 3):

After hours of discussion on various amendments proposed by Governor Ralph Northam, Virginia lawmakers voted to approve higher truck registration fees and gas tax increases along the I-81 corridor to fund long-needed improvements for the interstate.

Both the House and Senate voted Wednesday afternoon to accept Northam's amendments to Senate Bill 1716 and House Bill 2718, which lawmakers passed earlier this year without a source of funding at all.

According to supporters of the amendment, the 2.1 percent increase in the motor fuels tax along I-81 will amount to about 7 cents a gallon.

In an effort for support from lawmakers across Virginia, Northam's amendment established dedicated funding of $151 million for 81, but also $40 million for I-95, $28 million for I-64, and and $20 million for the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority.

Lawmakers from the Shenandoah Valley agreed with that move as a way to get the bill through and pay for repairs people in the Shenandoah Valley have been demanding for years.

“One of my top priorities for the 2019 General Assembly session was to support positive solutions to the dilemma of I-81,” said Delegate Tony Wilt. “Through further engagement with the Administration and stakeholders, I am pleased to see a bipartisan effort to improve I-81 come before us. My family business is part of the trucking industry. While this funding plan will certainly pose additional costs to our business, there is absolutely a cost to all citizens and businesses along the corridor if we continue to do nothing. This plan is a more equitable approach than some previously considered and will fund improvements that result in more efficient traffic flow and a decrease in the terrible loss of life so many families have had to endure.”

Opponents of the amendment said the legislature was rushing through a major tax hike without sufficient public input. Others have worried about a disproportionate effect on truckers, which make up a massive portion of the traffic volume on Interstate 81, adding up to 11 million trucks a year.

A proposal to put tolls on I-81 failed earlier this year, largely because of the opposition from truckers.

The money raised through the taxes will go into a dedicated fund called the Interstate 81 Corridor Improvement Fund, which will then be used to pay for repairs VDOT determined were necessary after a year of public meetings. You can find a list of those repairs in the Interstate 81 Corridor Improvement Plan here.

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UPDATE (March 28):

After Virginia lawmakers failed to agree on a source of revenue for more than $2 billion in recommended improvements to Interstate 81, Governor Ralph Northam announced amendments on Thursday to bills the General Assembly passed to establish a source of funds.

The amendments particularly hit truck drivers, and so are likely to face some of the same disagreements as the initial bills earlier this year.

Senate Bill 1716 and House Bill 2718 were each passed to create the Interstate 81 Corridor Improvement Fund, based on the Commonwealth Transportation Board's recommendation, but neither established where the money to fill that fund would come from.

Northam amended the bills to raise Virginia's truck registration fees, as well as diesel and road tax rates, to a level he says is more in line with the other states along the I-81 corridor.

His amendments also include a 2.1 percent increase in the motor fuels tax along the I-81 corridor in Virginia, which means any gas purchases along the interstate will contribute to planned improvements through the tax.

The amendments proposed by the governor establish dedicated funding of $151 million for I-81, but also add $40 million for I-95, $28 million for I-64, and and $20 million for the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority.

“This year I worked closely with Democratic and Republican legislators to reach a long-term agreement that would address the critical safety and reliability issues along the I-81 corridor and make historic investments in the economic competitiveness of this vital region of the Commonwealth,” said Governor Northam. “We can’t wait another year to find a solution—I am pleased to offer amendments that will establish dedicated funding sources to support improvements that will lead to a major reduction in crashes and travel delays.”

The 325 miles of Interstate 81 that run through Virginia connect five metropolitan areas and thirty institutions of higher learning, but they also serve as a route for more than $300 billion in commerce and goods a year, with almost 50 percent of all Virginia goods transported on the I-81 corridor, including 11 million trucks per year.

“One of my top priorities for the 2019 General Assembly session was to support positive solutions to the dilemma of I-81,” said Delegate Tony Wilt. “Through further engagement with the Administration and stakeholders, I am pleased to see a bipartisan effort to improve I-81 come before us. My family business is part of the trucking industry. While this funding plan will certainly pose additional costs to our business, there is absolutely a cost to all citizens and businesses along the corridor if we continue to do nothing. This plan is a more equitable approach than some previously considered and will fund improvements that result in more efficient traffic flow and a decrease in the terrible loss of life so many families have had to endure.”

You can find the Interstate 81 Corridor Improvement Plan here.

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Governor Ralph Northam is expected to announce a new plan to pay for improvements on Interstate 81 when he visits the Roanoke Valley on Thursday.

Northam is expected to call for an increase in some motor fuels taxes and truck registration fees, but apparently no new tolls.

In February, state lawmakers left Richmond without a funding stream for I-81 improvements. Now, the governor is offering an amendment to legislation they did pass that could get the money flowing this year.

Northam will explain the proposal during a Thursday news conference, but he's filed a 15-page amendment that would provide more funding for busy interstates across Virginia.

"It's desperately needed to be fixed," Senator John Edwards (D-Roanoke) said Wednesday afternoon. "It's a statewide problem. So I'm glad the Governor decided to step up and said let's try to do something before this year is over."

The plan calls for a mix of motor fuels tax increases, both statewide and regional, that would include diesel fuel and gasoline.

Lawmakers didn't have all the details when they met with the Roanoke Regional Chamber of Commerce, and the Roanoke Kiwanis Club on Wednesday, but some were skeptical.

"I think whenever you're talking about taking money out of taxpayers pockets, no matter how worthy the use of those funds, you need to have a substantial discussion beforehand," said Senator David Suetterlein (R-Roanoke County).

"I am absolutely opposed to any funding source that's involved with the an increase to the fuels tax, and hitching our wagon to that engine," said Delegate Chris Head (R-Botetourt), "because the usage of fossil fuels is diminishing at a fairly rapid pace."

Lawmakers will take up the issue during next week's one-day veto session. But at this point, it's unclear if the Speaker of the House will rule that the vote is germane.

"The real question will be, can we actually vote," said Delegate Chris Hurst (D-Blacksburg). "I would love to have the opportunity for every member of the General Assembly to vote on this plan and be able to vote their district."

And If the proposal comes to a vote, Interstate 81 advocates say they believe there is enough bipartisan support to win approval.