The writers are all Democratic members of the House of Delegates who represent districts along the I-81 corridor. Hurst is from Blacksburg; Gooditis from Clarke County; Rasoul from Roanoke.
Whether in life, business or politics, it’s always important not to “spike the football” before you’ve actually crossed the proverbial goal line. But later today, as our fellow colleagues in the General Assembly meet to address the governor’s vetoes and amendments to legislation, western Virginia has a unique opportunity to address our neglected infrastructure and fix Interstate 81.
If watching this year’s legislative debate and various proposed solutions has made you, the driver on Interstate 81, feel like you’ve been watching a contact sport, you’re right. It has been a difficult task to reach the point where dedicated funding for I-81 is a distinct possibility; a long road reminiscent of the 325 miles of this interstate in Virginia.
Last year, you may recall the Commonwealth Transportation Board and VDOT convened several public meetings as they put together an exhaustive report highlighting two billion dollars worth of critical projects along I-81 that need funding and several options to raise the revenue needed. In January, bills were introduced in the General Assembly to create a fund for I-81 and institute tolls as an equitable way to ensure out-of-state vehicle and truck traffic paid their fair share for use of the interstate. It soon became clear, however, that while addressing I-81 was a key priority of the General Assembly and the governor’s administration, discussions jackknifed when it came to how to pay for it.
But, behind the scenes, several lawmakers on both sides of the aisle continued to engage on finding a solution. Just like in football, sometimes halftime adjustments can make all the difference. Instead of tolls, what the legislature will consider on Wednesday are moderate increases to the truck registration fee and the diesel fuel tax across the Commonwealth. That makes this proposal a statewide infrastructure investment we haven’t seen in Virginia in nearly a decade; and at a time when the federal government has shown zero willingness to put any funding on the table. It also raises additional money along the I-81 corridor so those users of the interstate can contribute to its improvements. If approved by the General Assembly, this plan would dedicate $150 million a year for projects on I-81, including additional investments in truck parking and intermodal options to potentially divert some truck trailers onto rail.
Western Virginia is at a unique crossroads, one that will determine its growth and progress for the next generation. By making these investments, in partnership with the trucking industry, we believe Virginia will remain, the best state along the East Coast for trucking and commerce. According to engineering firm HDR Inc., the trucking industry will see more than three billion dollars in savings because of these improvements to I-81; for manufacturing it’s more than three hundred million dollars in positive economic impact and for agriculture and logistics, it’s tens of millions of dollars more.
They added, “Sectors where the largest amount of employment would be created… include: architectural, engineering and related services; retail; wholesale trade; full-service restaurants; real estate; limited-service restaurants; truck transportation; employment services; and hospitals.” And that is during and after construction. That sounds like the kind of major economic development our part of Virginia deserves.
It is hard to underscore how consequential this week will be for the future of our regions, from Winchester, to Roanoke, to Blacksburg and to Bristol. At a time when we collectively feel like the rest of the Commonwealth is leaving us behind, this is our chance to drive ahead and build the types of communities our families will want to continue living in for generations to come.