News and Views

The News & Advance : It's Time for Tolling on Interstate 81

The News & Advance

Interstate 81 is one of Virginia’s major transportation and economic arteries. The 855-mile-long highway begins at the Canadian border near the town of Wellesley Island, N.Y., and continues to its southern terminus at Dandridge, Tenn. Virginia has the longest stretch of I-81, with 325 miles between Winchester to the north and Bristol to the south.

Work began on the first segments of the highway in the mid-1950s in New York, with an expected completion in 1968. That simply wasn’t to be: Tennessee didn’t finish its portion until 1975, and work in Virginia didn’t end until 1987. Early on, the highway became popular with truckers as an alternative to the far busier, automobile-dominated I-95 further east.

What we have today is a highway, designed mostly to late 1950s/early 1960s standards that is outdated from an engineering perspective and is demonstrably unsafe to anyone driving it, especially the portion in Virginia. For the last 10 years or more, local governments and state legislators from the I-81 corridor have implored the state and federal governments to take up major improvements to the highway, but their pleas, for the most part, have fallen on deaf ears in Richmond.

Until Gov. Ralph Northam came onto the scene.

The governor announced a major legislative package of improvements to I-81 itself and parallel routes to increase safety and reduce the frequency of mega-traffic jams. Northam proposes tolling as the primary means of paying for the $2 billion package. Toll islands would be built every 40 to 60 miles, with tolls being collected electronically at the rates of 11 cents per mile for cars and 17 cents per mile for trucks. Under the original proposal, an annual pass for local traffic would be available for $30, and tolling would be discontinued during overnight hours.

But the usual suspects, led by the trucking industry and anti-tax activists, are mounting a ferocious battle to kill the funding plan.

State Sen. Mark Obenshain, a Harrisonburg Republican, is carrying the governor’s bipartisan plan in the Senate. Senate Bill 1716 was set for a hearing before the Transportation Committee on Jan. 23, but at the last minute, it was rerouted to the Finance Committee. Sen. John Edwards, a Democrat from Roanoke, proposed a 5-cent per gallon hike in the state’s gasoline tax in place of tolls; his bill also was rerouted to Finance, but with no hearing date. Tolling legislation in the House of Delegates is sitting in the Rules Committee, seemingly with no action.

Over them all hangs the date of Feb. 5 — Crossover Day — when legislation moves from the chamber in which it was introduced to the other. If a bill doesn’t make it out of committee and receive a positive vote in its originating chamber, it’s all but dead for the session.

The trucking industry is a major contributor to the campaign coffers of legislators, and it does not want tolls, period. Tolls, they claim, fall unfairly on their industry, which already pays more than its fair share of taxes for highway upkeep — so they say. Anti-tax activists portray tolls as taxes under a different name, rather than they truly are: user fees, paid by those who are actually using the resource that needs to be paid for.

Tolling’s foes have no proposals of their own; they simply know what they don’t want. Well, frankly, that won’t cut it anymore. I-81 must be addressed, and the most-straightforward plan to do so is the governor’s bipartisan-backed tolling plan. Our word to the Assembly: Move this legislation forward and onto the governor’s desk. Now.

Read the full article and more in The News & Advance.

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