Goodlatte responds to letter from Virginia lawmakers asking for action on I-81

UPDATE (Feb. 13):

View from VDOT traffic camera at MM 242.8 on Aug. 4, 2017

Congressman Bob Goodlatte sent a public response to the 16 Virginia lawmakers who asked Virginia's Congressional Delegation for federal help to solve problems with Interstate 81. You can read his response below:

"Dear Members of the Virginia General Assembly,

Thank you for your January 25, 2018, letter regarding the future of Interstate 81. As you know, since being elected to Congress, I have commuted via I-81 every week from my home in Roanoke to Washington, D.C. I also regularly use the route when visiting communities throughout the Sixth Congressional District. As a fellow I-81 driver, I share your concerns for the long-term planning, improvement, and safety of the interstate and appreciate you taking the time to send me your thoughts.

I-81 is a key route for transportation in Virginia as well as through much of the eastern United States. While high traffic is evidence of the growing economic strength of the commonwealth, high usage has an impact on road conditions, congestion, and safety. We agree that significant efforts must be made in order to fully address improvements to the 325 miles of I-81 in Virginia.

For Fiscal Year 2018, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) estimated $1.06 billion of its budget, roughly 19.5%, would be provided in dedicated funding by the federal government. I believe that VDOT continues to serve as the best entity to fairly evaluate, create, and execute strategies to address infrastructure needs across the commonwealth using both state and federal funding. Additionally, I recognize the challenges of fairly addressing infrastructure needs in urban, suburban, and rural areas of Virginia while operating under funding constraints that limit the ability of the commonwealth to create long-term budgets to support a holistic revitalization strategy for I-81.

Throughout the years there have been significant hurdles to the creation of such a comprehensive approach, including environmental concerns, eminent domain, and the obstacle of rerouting infrastructure through protected historic and natural sites. These hurdles, coupled with fiscal constraints and the controversial nature of funding mechanisms such as tolling, which has historically been unpopular in many communities, has resulted in a mammoth project that is not easily undertaken. However, these areas must be addressed by VDOT in order to move forward with an efficient and achievable plan of action.

As you know, since 2011, the Republican Conference in the House of Representatives has banned the use of earmarks, precluding Virginia’s congressional delegation from pursuing targeted appropriations for projects such as I-81. In light of this restriction, I have continued to support the commonwealth’s applications to federal grant programs. In November, I jointly authored a letter to Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao voicing support for Virginia’s $52.9 million request from the Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) grant program for the Interstate 81 Corridor Improvement Program. It is my understanding that INFRA grants are expected to be awarded during the second quarter of Fiscal Year 2018.

Your letter also requested that the Virginia congressional delegation support I-81 through a national infrastructure initiative directed by the current administration. As you know, the White House recently announced a proposal to rebuild and maintain America’s infrastructure, outlining a $200 billion appropriations request from Congress, in order to spur an estimated $1.5 trillion in investment. The proposal also requests reforms in the permitting process and the return to major decision-making authority to each state. As this proposal is considered by the House of Representatives, please know that I will be evaluating any additional options to support I-81, and will be in close contact with officials from all levels of government, including members of Virginia’s General Assembly, should such an occasion arise.

I stand ready to assist the commonwealth in navigating the regulatory approval and grants process and will continue to monitor additional opportunities to support the I-81 corridor whenever possible. Please feel free to contact our offices should you have questions or require additional information."

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A group of 16 Virginia lawmakers have penned 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 Interstate 81.

The interstate has long been a source of frustration for people in the Shenandoah Valley, with VDOT reporting at least a 12% increase in traffic in just the past 5 years and a 55% increase of delays from crashes, construction, or bad weather.

In 2014, Del. Steve Landes introduced a state budget item directing VDOT to to develop a list of improvements needed along the I-81 corridor. That study identified 41 projects that need to be undertaken on the interstate (which you can find more about here), but a lack of funding has prevented many of them from being completed.

Now, Landes is leading the charge to ask for federal assistance to fund safety improvements and congestion relief on Interstate 81.

"Interstate 81 is in dire need of safety improvements and congestion relief. We are seeking federal assistance to help alieve these problems,” said Landes. “Today, a bipartisan group of Virginia’s Delegates and Senators have written to members of Virginia’s Congressional Delegation that represent the areas along the I-81 corridor to work with President Donald Trump’s Administration to secure funding for Interstate 81.”

The letter sent on January 25 to Virginia's members of Congress was also signed by Senators Bill Carrico, Creigh Deeds and Mark Obenshain, along with Delegates Dickie Bell, Jeffrey Campbell, Ben Cline, Chris Collins, Todd Gilbert, Chris Head, Chris Hurst, Terry Kilgore, Steve Landes, Dave LaRock, Israel O’Quinn, Todd Pillion, Nick Rush and Tony Wilt.

One of the primary reasons the delegates are asking for federal money is to do something many people in the Valley have been asking about for years: adding a third lane in congested spots of the interstate.

"Ultimately, these problems will not be resolved without addressing the need for an additional travel lane at important safety pinch points," the letter states.

It asks for a response and a commitment to address the issue in 2018.

Reports by VDOT have 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.

In an effort to address some of the problems that can cause on the interstate, Sen. Obenshain introduced Senate Bill 561, which would direct VDOT to test a system of restricting tractor trailers to the right lane in parts of the interstate meeting certain criteria.

Obenshain also introduced Senate Bill 971, which would would make the Commonwealth Transportation Board study the possibility of using truck tolls to fund improvements to I-81.

Landes introduced a budget amendment to tackle issues on I-81 in another way, providing $670,000 a year from Virginia's general fund to increase traffic enforcement on I-81 specifically in Augusta, Rockingham, and Shenandoah counties.

You can find a copy of the letter from Virginia's lawmakers here.