Gov. Ralph Northam came out Tuesday in favor of charging tolls on Interstate 81 to fund $2.2 billion in proposed safety and reliability improvements on the Western Virginia interstate built in the 1960s.
Northam and key regional lawmakers plan to introduce legislation to begin to tackle I-81’s longstanding issues in Virginia, drawing guidance from a study lawmakers requested last year from the Virginia Department of Transportation.
Northam also backed an exemption that would grant passenger vehicles and small trucks unlimited use of I-81 in return for payment of a yearly fee, his office said.
While I-81’s needs aren’t being debated, toll-based funding has critics. The Virginia Trucking Association and Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates predicted higher business costs would hurt the economy. Franky Marchand, general manager of Volvo’s truck factory in Dublin, where 3,500 people are employed, warned in a Roanoke Times editorial Sunday about the “damaging economic impacts of tolls.”
Northam said he thinks the economic benefits from a safer and more efficient interstate would “far outweigh” the toll revenue collected from truckers and other motorists.
Crash-related traffic jams plague I-81 in Virginia, slowing commuters, leisure travelers and trucks carrying freight worth $312 billion yearly. No Virginia interstate carries a heavier share of trucks. VDOT listed for lawmakers the most effective fixes that could be built within about a decade and advised instituting higher taxes or tolls to pay the tab. A news release from Northam’s office revealed how the administration plans to move forward.
A group of lawmakers will present a toll-funded highway improvement plan during the 2019 General Assembly session, which begins Wednesday. They are Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham; Sen. Bill Carrico, R-Grayson; Del. Steve Landes, R-Augusta; and Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt. The Democratic governor said he expects opposition and would be counting on interstate users to speak up.
“People along 81, especially in Southwest Virginia, know how important a project this is and I think their input to their legislators ... is going to be very important and very strong,” Northam said.
Northam’s written release didn’t mention increasing sales or gas taxes in the I-81 corridor, but he said in an interview that that approach hasn’t been ruled out.
“Everything is on the table right now. I would say the consensus is to go more with tolls than taxes,” the governor said.
VDOT told the administration that if it wanted to establish tolls, it would recommend six overhead scanners in each direction. VDOT recommended locations at least 40 miles apart between urbanized areas and near the junctions of other interstates, but Northam said he didn’t know specific locations yet. Implementing a tolling program would cost an estimated $43 million. A fund to improve I-81, made up largely of toll revenue, but also funds paid for annual passes, would be established. The state would borrow construction funds with repayment programmed from the improvement fund.
A “great deal of the project list” could be completed within seven to 10 years after financing was in place, said Virginia Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine.
In a prepared statement, Valentine emphasized that under the administration’s plan, “Dedicated funding will allow us to make significant capital, multimodal, and operational improvements to I-81 promoting safety and economic growth.”
In the Salem highway district, covering the Roanoke and New River valleys and nearby communities, VDOT proposed spending $875 million on 13 projects. Crews would perform widening work that would result in many sections of I-81 between Christiansburg and Exit 150 in Botetourt County having three lanes in each direction.
“We are listening to the citizens who have told us that 81 needs to be improved,” Austin said in a prepared statement.
State officials previously estimated the annual fee would be about $30, while tractor-trailers and other large and medium trucks and passenger vehicles without the yearly pass would pay the toll.
Toll rates were not specified in Northam’s news release, but state highway officials have previously suggested 5 cents to 15 cents a mile depending on vehicle type and hour of day or night. Lower nighttime rates could apply from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m.