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Multiple bills that aimed to provide a funding stream for Interstate 81 improvements faltered in the General Assembly.

By John Edwards

Edwards represents the 21st District in the Virginia Senate, which covers Roanoke, Giles County, and parts of Montgomery and Roanoke counties. He is a Democrat.

Interstate 81, running 325 miles from Bristol to Winchester, carries 41 percent of all interstate truck miles traveled in Virginia, and is critical to the movement of goods in the eastern United States. It is also critical to Virginia’s economy. A statewide increase in funding is warranted and needed to support critical improvements to I-81.

Traffic on our interstates and highways continues to increase as the economy grows and more consumers shop on-line where goods are carried by trucks to customer doorsteps.

Almost everyone who uses I-81 on a regular basis has a story to tell about unforeseen, unexpected delays. Because of unpredictable incidents, such as accidents, road work crews and traffic stops, I-81 experiences more delays and traffic slowdowns than any other interstate in Virginia. Indeed, 51 percent of incidents on I-81 are unpredictable, while most delays on other Virginia interstates (72 percent) are foreseeable, such as “rush hour” in Northern Virginia.

Also, unlike other Virginia interstates, there are fewer side roads or alternatives for drivers to use to avoid or get around the delays.

As a major Virginia interstate, the need to “fix” the problems on I-81 calls for a statewide solution. It is not just a regional problem. It cannot be solved by a regional approach alone, such as by regional taxes or tolls, for both practical and political reasons.

I introduced SB 1470 to provide a statewide solution to improve Interstate 81. The legislation would add a statewide 5 percent wholesale tax increase on gasoline and diesel for both cars and trucks and benefit all regions of Virginia.

This approach has both political and economic benefits by attracting statewide support. Road improvements and maintenance work are needed on I-81 and across the state.

It is estimated that some 36 percent of retail gasoline in Virginia is purchased by out-of-state travelers driving in or through Virginia. Just as Virginians pay gas taxes in other states to improve and maintain their roads, so travelers from other states should assist in paying for roads in Virginia.

Furthermore, a wholesale tax which is charged at the “rack” goes unnoticed by purchasers at the pump. Large tankers take wholesale fuel to other states also so the tax is broadly shared. The price of gasoline and diesel varies often on a daily basis.

Most importantly, a wholesale tax on gasoline is efficient and easy to collect and avoids the use of tolls that plague drivers in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. Indeed, the balkanization of Virginia by creation of the Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads Transportation Authorities creates resentment when those areas shoulder the burden of paying unpopular tolls and regional gas taxes because the rest of the state refuses to support a simple statewide solution. Splitting Virginia into camps on road improvements splinters the Commonwealth to no region’s benefit.

My bill, SB 1470, would have raised almost $800 million annually, with $200 million dedicated to I-81. The balance would be distributed according to the Commonwealth Transportation Fund throughout the state. This would be sufficient for the urgently needed $2.2 billion projects for I-81.

The $200 million dedicated for I-81 also could reduce vehicle delays by more than 6 million hours annually. Crashes could be reduced annually by an average of 450, of which some 130 involve an injury.

Unfortunately, my bill for I-81 was stripped of all funding in committee, leaving only a study of future funding sources with more fuel efficient and electric vehicles. It eventually was left in the House Appropriations Committee without action.

Other House and Senate bills relied solely on tolls for I-81. When these proved unpopular, a conference committee, of which I was a member, was formed to look at alternatives.

Tolls were seen as too unpopular, inefficient, and inequitable.

A new proposal was presented to increase truck-only taxes and fees statewide for all Virginia interstates. This would have raised $281 million annually by increasing truck-only diesel fuel taxes and truck registration fees to the average for similar charges in states on the I-81 corridor. The funds would be divided pro rata based on interstate truck miles travelled. I-81 would receive $115 million annually, which would support about 70 percent of the most urgent needs of I-81.

Trucking industry officials expressed displeasure that an increase in the gas tax on cars was not included, leaving the burden of improving the interstates on trucks alone. However, too many members could not support an increase in the car gas tax.

The speaker and others believed raising truck-only taxes and fees might hurt Republicans in an election year. In the end, the conference committee report was not submitted to the General Assembly for a vote. An opportunity was lost to start fixing I-81.

The existing funding for Virginia’s roads, including interstates, is woefully inadequate for the demands now and in the future.

A statewide solution is required to win the support of a majority of members of the General Assembly and to meet the urgently needed funding for I-81.

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