News and Views

The Winchester Star : Frederick concerned it may not get I-81 fixes it needs

The Winchester Star

The Frederick County Transportation Committee on Monday expressed concerns that the county may not get the Interstate 81 improvements it needs to reduce traffic congestion and accidents.

The Office of Intermodal Planning and Investment, the Virginia Department of Transportation and the Department of Rail and Public Transportation are studying the entire length of the I-81 corridor in the Virginia, as directed by the General Assembly, to identify changes that will reduce traffic backups and crashes as well as find the funding to make those changes.

The I-81 study team identified 105 projects — valued at $4.25 billion — that it considers “immediate” transportation needs along the corridor. Due to funding challenges, the state is focusing on getting 72 projects valued at $2 billion funded in the near future.

Of the 72 suggested improvements, 24 are recommended for VDOT’s Staunton District, which includes the Winchester region. These projects would cost an estimated $886 million.

The I-81 study team unveiled plans last week to local residents at Shenandoah University. Several potential improvements in Frederick County, such as widening the road and adding auxiliary lanes from exits 313 to 317, were not recommended to be funded as part of the initial $2 billion investment. This frustrated county staff and local law enforcement, as they believe the county is more in need than other localities that had more projects recommended for funding, including Harrisonburg.

“It just doesn’t make sense,” Assistant County Planning Director John Bishop said Monday during the Transportation Committee meeting. “Because you are talking about a road segment that has over 10,000 additional trips than the Harrisonburg segment, based on 2017 data.”

Bishop is optimistic, however, that changes will be made before the Commonwealth Transportation Board sends its final funding recommendation to the General Assembly.

The Transportation Committee also discussed some of the proposed options for funding the I-81 improvements. Options the I-81 study team have proposed include tolls, a 0.7 percent increase in retail sales tax and use tax and a 2.1 percent increase in regional gas taxes. The tolls would be collected electronically without toll booths, as toll booths would increase traffic congestion.

Committee member James Racey said the state would have to spend money constructing overhead structures to implement tolls. He said the fuels tax, on the other hand, wouldn’t require the construction of any additional infrastructure.

Judith McCann-Slaughter, who serves on the committee and the Board of Supervisors, told Racey the fuels tax alone would not be enough. She said the amount of fuel tax collected in the commonwealth has been steadily going down due to an increase in energy efficient transportation.

Bishop believes that a “package” of different funding solutions is better than trying to just have one funding source.

“I’m not a big fan of the ‘all of your eggs in one basket’ approach,” Bishop said.

While the I-81 study group hopes to get the ball rolling on the 72 projects within the next few years, it hopes to fund all 105 projects by 2060. Ultimately, it will be up to the General Assembly to decide when the work will start.

Bishop said the $4.25 billion estimated to fund all 105 projects is based on 2018 dollars and that the cost estimate will increase over time due to inflation. He also noted that transportation needs may drastically change in the next 40 years.

“I wouldn’t look at this and say, ‘Oh look we are going to get all of this stuff by 2060,’ because the stuff that is not funded in the first round [of I-81 improvement projects] may not be valid by the time we get to the next round,” Bishop said.

Bishop said he would draft a resolution for the Board of Supervisors to vote on that would express the county’s desires for I-81 improvements in the county. The Commonwealth Transportation Board will consider its final plan of action at its Dec. 5 meeting and submit the plan to the General Assembly no later than the first day of the 2019 session.

Also at the meeting, VDOT official David Morris gave an overview of the state’s Highway Safety Improvement Program. The program is administered at the federal level by the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration. Its objective is to identify and improve locations where there is a high concentration of risk of vehicle crashes that result in death or injuries.

In the current fiscal year, the federal program will fund shoulder improvements, rumble strips, and guardrail upgrades on Va. 37 for $2.25 million. At various locations, it will also make upgrades to traffic signals for $260,000.

Attending the meeting at the Frederick County Administration Building were Transportation Committee Chairman Gary Lofton and members Judith McCann-Slaughter, Gary Oates, Barry Schnoor and James Racey.

Read the full article and more in The Winchester Star

back to News & Views