Some localities in western Virginia are unhappy with the funding plan for Interstate 81 that the General Assembly approved back in April.
Specifically, the legislature raised the wholesale tax on gas and diesel in the planning districts along the length of I-81 through Virginia.
Now, some local governments are busy passing resolutions against that plan. Their objection: I-81 doesn’t run through their localities.
Floyd County was the first to pass such a resolution. Since then Bland, Bath, Carroll, Grayson and Page counties all have followed suit. Alleghany, Craig, Giles and Highland counties have the resolution on the agenda for upcoming meetings. Franklin County took up the issue recently and decided to postpone it until after November’s elections.
Meanwhile, state Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham County, says he will introduce legislation in the next General Assembly session to exempt those localities that don’t touch I-81 from the I-81 taxes.
Their objections raise an important philosophical question: Just whose responsibility is Interstate 81? And also several practical ones, most notably: How should we pay for I-81?
The road is crowded with trucks; it’s often unreliable and sometimes outright dangerous. When the road was built, the expectation was that 15% of the traffic would be trucks. Now, in some places, it’s 40%. In the Roanoke Valley, traffic has tripled since the 1970s.
Since at least the 1990s, politicians have been talking about what to do about I-81. In all that time, there’s only been one plan that’s ever gotten passed — this one.
In the early 2000s, a proposal for a public-private partnership that would have added more lanes never went anywhere because there wasn’t sufficient political support for the key funding mechanism — tolls. There was another push in this year’s General Assembly for tolls. That likewise went nowhere. But this plan — which raised taxes on a regional basis — did.
It’s not perfect by any means. As the poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning goes, “let me count the ways.” She was writing about love, but the principle applies just as easily to things we don’t love. Let’s count the ways not to like the current I-81 funding plan: Nobody likes paying more taxes. Gas taxes may not be the best way to raise money for roads — especially as gas mileage improves and we see the rise of electric vehicles that don’t use any gas. And then there’s the obvious inequity that these localities are unhappy about: Why should people in a locality without I-81 have to pay more taxes?
All those points are true, yet the fact remains: In three decades of pushing for I-81 improvements, this is the only plan that’s been able to pass. If you don’t like this method — and, admittedly, there’s much not to like — then what alternative does anyone propose? Perhaps we should amend that: What alternative does anyone propose that can actually pass? Or would you prefer fewer improvements to I-81?
Unfortunately, that’s where Obenshain’s bill — to reduce the number of localities subject to the I-81 tax — would lead. Fewer places collecting taxes equals less revenue for upgrades. We understand Obenshain’s anti-tax instincts, but it seems odd for a legislator who represents people living along I-81 to introduce a bill that would reduce funding for the road. That’s effectively what his bill would do.
The localities that object say they had no idea they’d be subject to these I-81 taxes until after Gov. Ralph Northam signed the measure in April — or perhaps until they started seeing gas prices go up at the pump when it went effect in July. If that’s the case, then they simply weren’t paying attention. The idea of regional taxes — based on planning districts — has been talked about for at least a year. There were public hearings up and down western Virginia to talk about funding mechanisms. This particular measure — which came in the form of a budget amendment the governor presented to April’s veto session — was hardly a secret. Northam came to Salem and held a public event to talk up the proposal. Most legislators in western Virginia opposed the governor’s amendment. They certainly knew how this would work, because some of them voiced their concerns to us. If county supervisors are surprised, then they simply weren’t doing their jobs — or perhaps their senators or delegates failed to alert them they’d be covered by the legislation. We have precisely zero sympathy on that score. Perhaps voters should demand representatives more aware of what’s happening in the world.
We can be sympathetic that someone in Floyd County now has to pay taxes for a road they may rarely — or perhaps never — drive on, except for this: Where do they think all their stuff comes from? It comes on I-81. Just because a county doesn’t have I-81 running through it doesn’t mean that the locality has no economic connection with the road. Even if someone never leaves Floyd County, they still have a stake in the efficiency of I-81 — that’s how their groceries get to their local store, that’s how their medicines get to their local pharmacy, that’s how virtually everything they buy gets to them. Likewise, how do they think their local employers get their products to market? If Floyd County supervisors don’t want their people to pay the tax, then, logically speaking, perhaps people from Floyd County shouldn’t be allowed to drive on I-81. Or perhaps we should erect customs stations on the roads up Pilot Mountain or Bent Mountain and any Floyd-bound goods that were moved over I-81 should have a tariff applied to them. Or blocked entirely. You find that absurd? Good. That’s the point. Here’s the real absurdity: Why should people living in localities along I-81 — whether directly or indirectly — pay the entire expense for upgrading the road? I-81 serves a state function. Businesses here pay state taxes.
If an improved road helps spur economic development, then the state shares in that bounty in a variety of ways, from increased tax revenues on income, retail sales and businesses. If a jammed I-81 depresses economic growth, then the state suffers, too — and also has to pay more to subsidize our schools if we’re not generating enough local revenue. The real problem is that we used to treat transportation as a state responsibility. Over the past decades, we’ve balkanized it — and this is what that balkanization looks like. Instead of Bland, Bath, Carroll, Floyd, Grayson and Page counties telling their neighbors they should pay the entire bill for I-81 upgrades, they ought to be asking Richmond why the state has abandoned this part of the state to fight amongst ourselves.