Virginia Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner have requested federal funding for improving Interstate 81.
The Democratic senators, both former governors, sent letters Monday to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and the U.S. Department of Transportation stressing the highway’s role in the economy and the need for funding to improve safety.
“Interstate 81 plays a significant role in Virginia’s economy, but the corridor requires long-term funding for upgrades and improvements,” they wrote.
The letter to the Senate committee asks that I-81 be considered for funding as it drafts the surface transportation reauthorization bill. The committee appears poised to take up a version of the bill next month. It would be a less ambitious infrastructure bill than a massive infrastructure package that President Donald Trump wanted. It’s still unclear how Congress will propose to fund it.
Meanwhile, Kaine and Warner urged the transportation department in the other letter to consider the Virginia Department of Transportation’s grant application to fund I-81 projects.
VDOT submitted its grant application in March — after the General Assembly session ended with no funding mechanism but before the session in April when lawmakers returned to Richmond to take up Gov. Ralph Northam’s amendments to legislation, which included a funding scheme for I-81.
VDOT’s grant requests $49 million for more than a dozen projects, including ramp and shoulder improvements as well as extending acceleration and deceleration lanes.
The federal funding, according to the senators, would be a complement to a funding package the General Assembly approved in April.
Under the plan the General Assembly approved, revenue will come from increasing tractor-trailer registration fees and the statewide diesel tax. Additionally, in the localities along the I-81 corridor, the regular gas and diesel tax paid would go up.
Revenue designated for I-81 will go toward $2.2 billion of projects the Commonwealth Transportation Board has endorsed.
However, VDOT has identified another $2 billion worth of road needs that didn’t make the final cut.
“While this is a significant investment,” Warner and Kaine wrote about the General Assembly funding plan, “there is a funding gap between money generated through the commonwealth’s funding mechanism and what is needed to adequately fix the corridor.”
Last month, several state lawmakers who represent stretches of I-81 wrote to Virginia’s congressional delegation urging members to secure funding for I-81.
Rep. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge, spoke last month before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure about the need for federal dollars for the highway.
The funding mechanism the state approved earlier this year will take effect next week.
Virginia transportation officials have said they are making plans to begin moving quickly after the law takes effect to design and advertise the initial projects planned for improving safety on 1-81.
The highway stretches 325 miles between Bristol and the northern Shenandoah Valley. There are about 2,000 crashes each year on I-81, with about a quarter of them involving tractor-trailers.
Nearly 12 million trucks travel I-81 each year, hauling freight valued at $312 billion. No other interstate in the commonwealth carries a heavier share of truck traffic.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a nonpartisan consumer advocacy group, and Frontier Group, a liberal-leaning think tank, included the I-81 funding plan in its annual list of “highway boondoggles.”
The report published last week says that widening parts of the highway to three lanes “will not solve the corridor’s problems.” It argues that businesses may locate near the highway and more commuters will use the highway at rush hours, making the purpose of widening moot.
The groups support the plan’s other proposed upgrades, such as message signs, safety service patrols that help stranded motorists and better speed enforcement.
The report also suggested the speed limit be reduced along the highway and shifting the transportation of goods onto trains.