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The Roanoke Times : Editorial: Who's going to pay for I-81?

The Roanoke Times

The conversation about Interstate 81 is moving along at a somewhat faster pace than I-81 itself during one of its regular slowdowns. But, that’s not necessarily saying much.

Last week, the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce heard from Jeff Southard, executive vice president of the Richmond-based Virginia Transportation Construction Alliance, who repeatedly said that upgrading I-81 will require “political will.”

That’s certainly true, because the cost of any fix for Interstate 81 will be measured in the billions.

The difficulty of mustering the “political will” to pay for that was soon evident in the conversation that came after Southard’s talk.

There are only so many ways to raise money, and it was soon clear that each one had its objections.

Some have proposed putting a toll on big trucks. Chris Tuck, the chairman of the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors, was skeptical, fearing that collecting those tolls will slow down traffic even more.

Christiansburg Mayor Mike Barber was more open to tolls — but didn’t think they should be charged to Virginia residents, only traffic coming into the state.

He also expressed some interest in raising the gas tax, provided that the money went to Interstate 81 (and presumably not to some road project in Northern Virginia).

These are all natural reactions, of course, and we don’t fault the politicians for them. However, here’s the uncomfortable reality — two uncomfortable realities really:

- If we want Interstate 81 upgraded, somebody somewhere is going to have to pay for it.

- There are no good options for how to pay for it.

Let’s look at a few of them.

- Tolls on trucks. State Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham County, authored legislation that has set in motion a Virginia Department of Transportation study of I-81. His legislation specifically called for VDOT to study “tolling only heavy commercial trucks.” Part of the rationale is that it’s trucks that are often clogging up the interstate. When I-81 was built, the expectation was that 15 percent of the traffic would be trucks. Today, it’s 24 percent. Of course, that’s an average. On some days, in some places, the figure is 40 percent. So let’s toll the trucks! Car drivers generally don’t like trucks. They also don’t like paying tolls. So tolling trucks seems a good solution, right? Most trucks are probably from out of state, so it’s an even better solution — we make out-of-staters pay for our road. It’s almost genius, right? Maybe there really is a free lunch, or at least a free third lane.

Now, here’s why that’s wrong. First there are some philosophical objections. Even at its most congested points, most of the traffic on I-81 isn’t trucks. So why should we make a minority of road-users pay for the road, even if we do find trucks scary and obnoxious? (Truckers probably think the same thing of amateur drivers in their cars, by the way.)

Now the practical problems.

Put a toll on trucks and who do you think would pay? Ultimately, consumers would. Not all those consumers are in Virginia, of course, so maybe we escape some or even most of the pain. But every tractor-trailer bringing goods into Virginia would pay those tolls — and eventually so would whoever is buying those goods. The cost would simply get passed on. Maybe it won’t feel like a tax increase if you’re paying more for your winter tomatoes at the grocery store, but that’s essentially what it would be. You’d wind up paying those truck tolls indirectly.

Some trucks would also try to avoid those tolls. We’ve already heard from truckers who say if there are tolls on I-81 they’ll simply try to get on U.S. 11 or U.S. 29 instead. That’s not really what we want, either.

- Gas tax. State Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta County, proposed raising the gas tax 2.1 percent in the planning districts along I-81. That bill passed the Senate 24-16, but was carried over until next year in the House Finance Committee. On the one hand, this bill has a certain logic to it: If people west of the Blue Ridge want the interstate west of the Blue Ridge improved, they should pay for it (which is the exact opposite logic of the truck tolls proposal).

Now, here’s the philosophical problem with that. The gas tax, like the sales tax, is regressive, and pinches lower-income people more than higher-income people. Virginia’s never been particularly concerned about that, but it’s still a fact.

And here are the practical problems. Electric cars use the roads but don’t use gas. So they wouldn’t pay any tax. Is that right? Electric cars don’t account for much traffic now, but they might in the future. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory projects that electric vehicles may account for up to 76 percent of vehicle-miles traveled by 2050. How will we pay for roads then if three-fourth of the drivers aren’t paying a gas tax?

Nationally, gas tax revenues haven’t been keeping up with the cost of road maintenance — because gasoline-powered cars are getting much better gas mileage. That’s led some states to impose “fees” (i.e., taxes) on fuel-efficient vehicles.

Here’s the bigger problem with an I-81 gas tax: Some legislators west of the Blue Ridge worry that if we raise our own gas tax that effectively tells legislators from more urban areas that they don’t need to worry about us anymore — and give Northern Virginia legislators an excuse to divert even more transportation funds their way. That gets at yet another problem: We don’t really view transportation as a statewide problem, meriting a statewide solution.

Whatever the fix for Interstate 81 will be, it’s going to cost a lot of somebody’s money. In the early 2000s, there was a proposal for a public-private partnership to widen all of I-81 to eight lanes — four in each direction. The pricetag then was put at $7.8 billion. In today’s dollars, that would be at least $10.8 billion.

David Foster, the chairman of RAIL Solution, a non-profit that promotes rail, says we shouldn’t be looking at building new lanes, but setting up trains to carry trucks from Knoxville, Tennessee, to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. That kind of “truck ferry” has been done in Europe but never in North America. Even that, though, will cost somebody something.

Southard is right that political will is required. If we really want to fix I-81, we need to figure out who’s going to pay for it and how. We don’t know what the “how” will be but we know who the “who” will be. One way or another, it’s going to be us.

Read the full editorial and more in The Roanoke Times.

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