Gov. Ralph Northam has pitched one final plan on how to start securing some of the money for billions of dollars in Interstate 81 road improvements and accomplish one of the legislature’s biggest priorities this year.
Standing atop a hill in Roanoke County overlooking a busy I-81 on Thursday, Northam said it’s crucial that the General Assembly approve a funding mechanism for the crash-plagued highway that extends for nearly 325 miles through Western Virginia. Legislation that passed the General Assembly this year did not include a funding plan.
“We cannot sit back and let the problems continue,” said Northam, who was joined by five legislators who represent localities along the corridor. “Talk and civil dialogue are important, but actions speak louder than words.”
Northam is proposing an increase in tractor-trailer registration fees to begin later this year. He also wants to increase the diesel tax to 2.03 percent of the statewide average wholesale price per gallon, which would begin in July 2021. The revenue generated would be distributed to projects statewide.
Also, in the localities that line the I-81 corridor, the regular gas and diesel tax paid would go up, with a 2.1 percent wholesale tax added. That revenue would go directly for I-81.
Transportation Secretary Shannon Valentine estimates this would generate about $150 million a year for I-81. It’s just a fraction of the $4 billion of road needs that the Virginia Department of Transportation identified last year.
The General Assembly will convene Wednesday to take up these amendments along with proposed changes to legislation and vetoes. Republicans command a slim majority in the House of Delegates and Senate, and a majority is required to pass the amendments.
Northam is amending legislation from Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, and Del. Steve Landes, R-Augusta, that took sharp turns throughout the six-week legislative session and passed the General Assembly without any way to raise money.
Those bills first started with putting tolls on I-81, charging 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. Neither Obenshain nor Landes attended the event Thursday.
Instead, those bills landed on the governor’s desk with the purpose of establishing the Interstate 81 Corridor Improvement Fund and creating a committee focused on fixing the highway. The committee — made up of state legislators and local officials — will hold public meetings throughout this year and report an update to the General Assembly in December.
Valentine said those elements of the legislation are important “but not impactful without the funding.”
Separately, Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, put in a bill that would have increased the wholesale motor fuel tax for the whole state.
The legislation pitted lawmakers from the regions across Virginia against one another. Northern Virginia lawmakers expressed discontent over the idea that tolls would be much lower along I-81 than its own highways. Even along the I-81 corridor, legislators on the southern end said it was unfair for them to pay tolls when their road projects were valued at less than repairs along the rest of the highway.
“We have built our transportation funding structures with different rules of the road,” said Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William, who was not a fan of the tolling plan.
So the legislation stalled — much like the tractor-trailer on the side of the highway yards away from Northam. Lawmakers removed the funding mechanisms from the final legislation and inserted a request for studies on highway funding.
The amendments Northam proposed should be of some satisfaction to lawmakers in Northern Virginia. Some of the money raised through the registration fees and statewide diesel tax will go to the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority. This would restore funding the region lost last year as part of a funding agreement to provide dedicated funding for the Metro system by pulling money from regional transportation projects.
“It doesn’t sufficiently address that issue but it puts that in the right direction,” said McPike, adding he would vote in favor of the amendments.
The trucking industry had pushed back against the toll plan throughout the legislative session, saying it placed more of a burden on trucks. Dale Bennett, president and CEO of the Virginia Trucking Association, said he was supportive of all the amendments.
“Under this plan, the trucking industry is stepping up to the plate to pay a large share of cost of improving I-81 and other interstates in Virginia,” he said.
Edwards and Del. Chris Hurst, D-Blacksburg, who both attended the announcement, said they weren’t thrilled with the gas increase along the corridor, but overall, they supported the package of amendments.
“It’s a good start,” Edwards said.
Hurst said he hopes that Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, will allow the House of Delegates to vote on the amendments. Lawmakers have expressed concern he could say they are not relevant to the legislation, so not take them up for a vote.
“The speaker is continuing to review all of the governor’s amendments ahead of Wednesday’s reconvene session,” said Parker Slaybaugh, Cox’s spokesman.
“When you have a six- or eight-week session, things get compressed, and you need to be nimble and ready to work to achieve a solution,” Hurst said. “These bills started out to raise revenues and they now they end with striving to raise revenues.”
Landes said he isn’t familiar enough with the amendments to take a position, but he appreciated the administration’s continued effort to work on the issue. He said even if the amendments don’t pass the legislature, they offer a good foundation to bring back to next session.
Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, who has been involved in discussions for many years about how to fix I-81, said he likely will not vote for the amendments if they come up on the Senate floor.
He said such a significant change to the bills is worth going through the rigorous legislative process.
“The general public doesn’t have an opportunity in this short time to weigh in,” he said.
Del. Tony Wilt, R-Rockingham, said his constituents tell him they want repairs to the highway, where drivers often get stuck in crashes.
There were about 11,000 crashes between 2012 and 2016, with about 45 annually during that period that took more than four hours to clear.
Wilt said his business would be affected by the diesel tax, but he recognizes the need to find new revenue to make necessary upgrades.
“We’ve run out of pixie dust,” Wilt said.