Winter Weather

Bristol Herald Courier | File 2018

Interstate 81 traffic slowed to a crawl or halt on Dec. 10 in Southwest Virginia as emergency crews worked to clear a weather-related road blockage involving a tractor-trailer.

RICHMOND — A small group of lawmakers is meeting this week behind closed doors to discuss Interstate 81 legislation, and negotiations are ongoing about whether a funding mechanism can be agreed to that would pay for improvements to the congested highway.

Lawmakers on a conference committee are debating two bills that at one point proposed the installation of tolls along the highway. Regional disputes among lawmakers led to the legislation being rewritten to scrap the tolls and instead create a fund to hold future revenue.

The House and Senate bills are nearly identical, but lawmakers are hashing out ideas in the private meetings about whether they can still find a funding mechanism, according to lawmakers familiar with those discussions. The funding ideas emphasize placing more of a financial burden on the trucking industry. Those ideas include raising the diesel tax, earmarking a portion of tractor-trailer registration fees toward I-81, and tolls.

Del. Steve Landes, R-Augusta, the chief patron of the House bill, said Tuesday that state Transportation Secretary Shannon Valentine has been meeting with lawmakers to see how amendable they would be to an increase in the diesel tax.

“There’s interest to do something,” Landes said. “We’re trying to see if people have an appetite for anything before this session ends.”

The lawmakers are on a tight deadline, with the General Assembly session scheduled to conclude Saturday. Landes said he’s hoping the committee will wrap up its negotiations by Wednesday or Thursday.

The delegates on the committee are: Betsy Carr, D-Richmond; Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah; and Landes. The senators are: Bill Carrico, R-Grayson; John Edwards, D-Roanoke; and Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham. Obenshain is the chief patron of the Senate bill.

The legislation originally would have charged 17 cents per mile for trucks and 11 cents per mile for other drivers. Car drivers — but not truckers — could purchase a $30 annual pass.

The legislation grew from a Virginia Department of Transportation study that identified $4 billion in road needs for I-81. That list eventually got trimmed to $2 billion in projects intended to make the crash-plagued highway safer.

Those bills would now establish the Interstate 81 Corridor Improvement Fund and create a committee focused on fixing the highway. There is no proposed funding source. Instead, the committee — composed of state legislators and local officials — will hold public meetings throughout this year. It will provide an update, including a funding proposal, to the General Assembly by Dec. 15.

Various members on the conference committee would not publicly comment Tuesday on the committee conversations.

Valentine’s office did not return a request for comment.

Dale Bennett, president and CEO of the Virginia Trucking Association, said the trucking industry couldn’t support a plan that it knows nothing about.

“The trucking industry has consistently said it is willing to pay our fair share for road funding as part of a plan under which all road users contribute and that does not toll existing interstates,” he said. “We’d like to be part of the conversation about how best to do that, but there has been no opportunity for input from stakeholders on this latest plan, which was not discussed during last year’s study and has not been shared with us.”

Stephanie Kane, spokeswoman for the Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates, said motor fuels tax revenue is preferable as a source to fund improvements. The Richmond group has pushed back on legislation that would impose tolls.

“We all agree something must be done, but a last-minute funding push that may include tolling an existing interstate is a hasty and ill-advised proposal by policymakers,” she said.

Two delegates and two senators must agree to a conference committee report. Then the conference committee report must be approved by a majority of each chamber’s delegation in order to move ahead to the floor of the House and Senate.

Among various bills that emerged this session related to I-81 was a proposal from Edwards to raise the statewide wholesale motor fuels tax by 5 percent, bringing it to 10 percent. A portion of the money raised would go toward I-81, and the rest would be put into a state transportation fund. That bill was rewritten to become a study about the impact of increased fuel efficiency and use of hybrid and electric cars on transportation revenues.

Valentine has expressed concern about relying on the wholesale motor fuels tax as a funding stream because the commonwealth is seeing a trend of increased roadway use without motor fuel tax revenue keeping pace.

On Tuesday, Edwards’ study bill was killed, in effect, after being left in a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee.

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Amy Friedenberger is the politics reporter for The Roanoke Times. She's been a reporter here since 2014. Previously, she worked for newspapers in Pennsylvania. Follow her on Twitter at @ajfriedenberger.

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