News and Views

Bristol Herald Courier : I-81 study looks to solutions, funding

Bristol Herald Courier

On Monday, the Virginia Department of Transportation, Office of Intermodal Planning and Investment and Department of Rail and Public Transportation hosted the second in a series of public meetings and discussed detailed potential improvements between exits 1 and 86. About 60 people attended the event at the Holiday Inn and Suites, which featured a presentation by Deputy Secretary of Transportation Nick Donohue. Additional meetings are scheduled in Middletown, Weyers Cave and Salem this week and next.

The group is scheduled to host a third series of public meetings in October then finalize its recommendations to improve corridor safety and traffic flow to the Commonwealth Transportation Board, which is expected to then send a plan on to the General Assembly.

The final plan is expected to include recommendations on funding sources, which could include tolls for large, commercial vehicles, a dedicated increase in the fuel tax and a dedicated increase in sales tax, levied in communities served by the interstate.

“The one thing we know is whatever funding source the [Commonwealth Transportation] board adopts to send to the General Assembly, that will not cover all those projects,” Donohue said after his presentation. “We will evaluate each one individually to look at the benefit they provide relative to their costs. I couldn’t really speculate what that amount is, but you heard tonight, folks want to see something done. I think you’ll see a real plan for the first time in a long time on this I-81 corridor, which can be sent to the General Assembly and I hope they’ll give positive consideration to.”

Local CTB member Jerry Stinson said that the group will have some important decisions to make once the final plan is drafted. Stinson mentioned tolling and raising the gas tax, but hasn’t made any decisions about funding.

“Once the top ideas come across, then we’ll know a figure, and once we know that, we’ll be able to make a well-informed decision and know what we have to do insofar as funding it,” Stinson said.

Potential solutions in this area include widening I-81 between mile markers 8 and 10; ramp improvements at exits 17 and 26; curve improvements near mile marker 18 and near Exit 22; extending acceleration and deceleration lanes at mile marker 39; and installing a series of traffic cameras and more notifications signs.

Ben Mannell, VDOT’s assistant director of transportation planning, said the proposed solutions are a direct result of feedback from the previous series of meetings and research conducted by the state.

“This is focused on looking at the data, taking a deeper dive and looking at the causality related to problems along the corridor and developing solutions that address those problem areas specifically,” Mannell said. “We’re focusing on other contributing factors to traffic problems, looking at ramp spacing, where we have curvature of roads, and trying to identify solutions that respond to those issues.”

Sen. Bill Carrico, R-Galax, who, along with Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, helped initiate the study, attended the meeting. He said VDOT has done a good job identifying trouble spots along the corridor.

“What do you do so you don’t harm commerce on the interstate? There are several options — the 2.1 percent motor fuels tax, the 0.7-cent sales tax and heavy truck tolls,” Carrico said. “If you look at how those tolls are set up, it’s probably about every 60 miles. If you’re doing local delivery, you would probably never have to pay toll. There are ways to do that, and that’s probably one of the most viable options I see.”

Tolling is forecast to create between $70 million and $100 million annually, which could then be used to leverage bond capability, Carrico said. At $100 million, the state could leverage $1 billion and be able to complete many of the proposed projects.

“I get emails all the time both pro and con, but I think most people want something done,” Carrico said.

Donohue said other areas of Virginia have adopted dedicated funding streams to address needed interstate improvements, but this is the first time in a long time the state is addressing I-81.

“It is really the backbone of western Virginia, but we’ve really had a lull since the STAR Solutions proposal in the early 2000s. It was a lofty solution that proved very, very unpopular with many people for a host of different reasons. And ultimately, nothing was done,” Donohue said.

In 2004, the state considered a $13 billion proposal to add travel lanes the length of I-81 and separate commercial vehicle traffic from passenger cars.

The Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates, a Richmond-based group opposed to the toll portion of the plan, calling it “fiscally irresponsible” and “financially inefficient,” submitted the following statement to the Herald Courier and to VDOT.

“Imposing tolls on heavy trucks that use existing lanes on I-81 will increase shipping costs for goods, suppress consumer activity, waste revenues on bureaucratic administration, double-tax businesses, divert traffic onto local roads, and negatively impact residents and communities located around toll facilities. Efforts to make tolling easier are simply efforts designed to hurt Virginia’s economic future and reroute prosperity around the western half of the commonwealth,” the release states.

The organization supports the gas tax increase currently being studied as part of the improvement plan.

Read the full article and more in the Bristol Herald Courier

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