News and Views

The Daily Progress : Opinion/Editorial: I-81 changes needed; funds must be found

The Daily Progress

Tolling for Interstate 81 is on the table.

Central Virginians who travel this traffic-choked, north-south artery know that some kind of relief is essential.

But how to pay for improvements is a decision that could affect motorists who use I-81 and taxpayers who live along its corridor.

Placing tolls on big commercial trucks — which, at 11.7 million trucks annually, account for much of the highway’s traffic and a large portion of its maintenance costs because of their heavier weight and damage potential — was under consideration from the moment Virginia launched a study of funding mechanisms.

But recommendations presented recently included tolls on cars as a possibility, as well as potential increases to sales and fuel taxes. Or the state could settle on some combination of these proposals.

A hefty $2 billion is needed for improvements to the entire corridor, state transportation officials say — and that’s a significantly scaled-back version of earlier plans. Improvements in the Staunton district, closest to Charlottesville-Albemarle, would run about $886 million and are proposed to include widening projects and adding more lanes for traffic.

The trucking industry has long protested the idea of tolls. The latest plan expands tolling to include cars, in part because truckers objected to being the only users expected to carry that added burden.

If truckers were charged a toll of 17 cents per mile, and if they traveled the entire 325 miles of I-81 that lies in Virginia, they would pay $55.25 per truck trip.

But the industry says that those costs would discourage businesses from locating here — and even cause some businesses to move. It argues that businesses along the corridor to which truckers deliver needed supplies would see their costs rise, as haulers increase rates to offset the price of tolls.

Businesses — and other taxpayers — along the corridor might see their costs rise in another way. Among the proposed funding mechanisms are an increase to the sales and use tax from 5.3 percent to 6 percent and an increase in the fuel tax from 5.1 percent to 7.2 percent. Those increases would be applied only to the localities lying along the I-81 corridor.

Those localities have benefited greatly from the commerce the interstate has brought them; based on that reasoning, it is logical to expect the localities to contribute more to the upkeep of this economic engine.

However, the localities also have borne certain burdens, including loss of productive land to the interstate’s construction, the inconveniences and dangers of added traffic, and the costs of supplying support services such as fire and rescue.

On behalf of Central Virginia residents, though, we’re more concerned about the effects of tolling. Tolling has the advantage of shifting costs to the very motorists who use the interstate — but it also surely will produce the disadvantage of shifting traffic to other highways as drivers try to avoid tolls.

That could affect not just U.S. 11 as it parallels I-81 but also U.S. 29. North-south U.S. 29 might not be the first choice of toll avoiders, but it could be the logical route for some trips, depending on departures and destinations. Portions of U.S. 29 already are highly congested; we do not need more traffic transferred onto this highway.

Meanwhile, all arguments to the contrary, big trucks are the big problem on I-81. They should pay a fair share of improvements

While we support projects for I-81, we need more information about the consequences of tolling before supporting any such option.

Read the full article and more in The Daily Progress.

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