RICHMOND — A bipartisan effort to develop a funding mechanism to fix the safety and congestion problems along Interstate 81 came to a halt last week.
Proposals to install tolls on the 325-mile highway or increase the gas tax barreled toward a collision with legislators who couldn’t agree on how to fund improvements in a fair way.
The General Assembly session started with six bills related to I-81. Only two proposals remain that once included a funding stream, but have been gutted and now set in motion studies on how to pay for billions of dollars in I-81 upgrades. With three weeks left in the session, it appears unlikely lawmakers will leave Richmond with a funding stream to begin improvements on the crash-plagued highway.
“I just would hope that those who didn’t like the legislation would come up with their own ideas,” said Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, whose bill in its original form would have established tolls. “Because right now we’ve got nothing.”
The day before the General Assembly gaveled in, Gov. Ralph Northam stood with Democratic and Republican lawmakers praising a bipartisan plan to fix I-81. The administration backed tolls.
“Making these improvements will take money,” Northam said then. “Finding money requires tough choices.”
Obenshain and Del. Steve Landes, R-Augusta, both presented similar bills to put tolls on I-81. The legislation 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 that eventually got trimmed to $2 billion in projects. The projects were selected via a scoring system to do the most to reduce wrecks and time spent in stalled traffic and commuting. Obenshain authored the legislation that set the study in motion.
Meanwhile, other lawmakers rolled out competing bills.
Sen. John Edwards, R-Roanoke, wanted to raise the statewide wholesale motor fuels tax by 5 percent, bringing it to 10 percent. Edwards estimated the tax would raise nearly $800 million. Of that, $200 million would be set aside to fix I-81, and the rest would go into a state transportation fund.
Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, had a bill that would increase the wholesale motor fuel tax sold in localities along the I-81 corridor.
Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, wanted to scrap the regional sales and gas taxes enacted in 2013 to fund transportation schemes in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia and instead create a statewide highway funding program by increasing the gas tax.
Del. David LaRock, R-Loudoun, proposed creating a dedicated commission that would work out the funding and infrastructure needs of I-81.
“This thing is moving at such a fast pace,” LaRock said after a General Assembly panel killed his bill.
That’s not fair. That became a popular remark throughout the discussion on funding options.
The trucking industry didn’t like the tolls because they would be higher for trucks. Members from the Southwest Virginia delegation also couldn’t get behind tolls.
The I-81 Corridor Improvement Plan breaks down upgrades according to three regional districts. Between Bristol and Wythe County, the plan calls for $285 million in improvements. Upgrades to the stretch between Pulaski and Botetourt counties would cost $875 million, and from Rockbridge to Frederick counties the price tag is $838 million.
“You get into a situation where people feel like they are subsidizing improvements on other parts of 81 that they never travel,” said Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington, who opposed the proposed tolling plan.
Lawmakers in Northern Virginia were uneasy when they saw that people could purchase a $30 annual pass to ride I-81, while their constituents may pay that in a single day to drive on certain highways in their heavily congested region.
Transportation Secretary Shannon Valentine explained to senators at a meeting about legislation that tolls on other highways address identified congestion spots, while I-81 doesn’t have that problem. It’s unpredictable incidents all along the highway that cause delays that can last hours.
“Is it your name on the ballot in November?” Sen. Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax, asked Valentine.
For weeks, emails filled the inboxes of lawmakers along the I-81 corridor. Lobbyists pushing or fighting tolls set up websites and social media pages to encourage people to write to their representatives. Lawmakers said many people who wrote them said they didn’t want tolls.
“This is a big step, and there are huge issues to it, so everybody wanted to bump the brakes,” O’Quinn said.
Landes and Obenshain scrapped legislation to put tolls on I-81.
“You’ve got to count the votes around here,” said Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt, a co-patron of the bill from Landes. “We were very uncomfortable.”
The bills will 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 — made up 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.
“There wasn’t a consensus,” Landes said. “So we decided to go with what people could agree on: having a fund, having an improvement plan, and having a committee.”
It may not be politically popular to push for a measure that takes money out of people’s pockets, but Obenshain still maintains tolls would have been effective at getting the highway improvements people want.
“What I really wanted to do was break the logjam and advance the cause of finding the way of making the improvements to the interstate,” Obenshain said after presenting his revised bill on Thursday.
Austin said education on the bills could have been better. People were confused about what the tolling system would be like. He said people were unaware of how they could potentially drive on I-81 for free once a day.
While lawmakers were disappointed that they weren’t able to agree on a funding source, they said the revised bills at least keep the effort moving forward.
“People say we need to do something about I-81,” Landes said. “This will move us forward, so we’ll be back next year with how to fund projects.”
Edwards’ bill also underwent a revision, too. Lawmakers stripped his gas tax from the bill and inserted language calling for the transportation secretary to study the impact of increased fuel efficiency and use of hybrid and electric cars on transportation revenues.
Valentine had said one of her issues with the gas tax is that while miles driven on Virginia’s roadways have been increasing, motor fuel tax revenue hasn’t been increasing at the same pace.
Hanger said that while an increase in the gas tax might get the votes in the Senate, he said it probably wouldn’t survive in the House.
Asked if Virginians can expect lawmakers to leave this month without agreeing on a funding source, Edwards said on Friday, “It’s not over.”
Landes’ bill is on the House floor, and Obenshain’s and Edwards’ bills are on the Senate floor to be voted on this week.