Virginia transportation officials approve I-81 Corridor Improvement Plan

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WEYERS CAVE, Va. (WHSV) — A team of Virginia leaders assembled by Governor Ralph Northam to oversee road safety across Virginia has approved a plan to fix some of the problems plaguing Interstate 81.

The Commonwealth Transportation Board voted to approve the I-81 Corridor Improvement Plan, which was drafted by a team supported by the Office of Intermodal Planning and Investment, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), and the Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT).

Earlier this year, the General Assembly instructed several state agencies — including VDOT — to study the entire length of the interstate in Virginia and identify potential fixes and sources of funding.

Stage 1 of the plan implemented by that bill was studying safety and congestion; stage 2 focused on possible revenue sources.

With public comment meetings held during each phase, the agencies identified top problem areas, also relying on statistical measures like crash frequency and severity by location, as well as the amount of delays.

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 study team established a portfolio of targeted solutions to improve travel on the interstate, as well as funding mechanisms for those solutions.

According to VDOT, widening the interstate would cost an estimated 10 to 15 million dollars for every mile of pavement.

Tolls for heavy commercial vehicles, as well as taxes on fuel and retail sales, have been considered as potential options to pay for an estimated $3.3 billion in projects.

But the idea of tolls on heavy commercial vehicles has not sat well with many local trucking companies, who worry such tolls could impact them disproportionately.

In the Staunton District, which spans from Lexington to Winchester, 24 of 46 potential solutions suggested in the plan were recommended in a VDOT meeting in October.

“The I-81 corridor is one of the Commonwealth’s vital gateways to economic prosperity,” said Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine. “Our team is committed to value-driven multimodal improvements to increase safety and reliability.”

With the 17-member Commonwealth Transportation Board's approval, the improvement plan will go before the General Assembly in the 2019 session.

Lawmakers will need to approve any potential tolls or taxes before they can take effect.