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I-81 law supported, but tolls not popular

By MELINDA WILLIAMS

melinda@southwesttimes.com

A group that launched a push in October for Interstate 81 improvements is pleased with proposed legislation aimed at upgrading the interstate; however, a local trucking company doesn’t support tolls as the proposed funding source.

“We agree the interstate should be updated and we’re not opposed to paying for it,” said Leland King, president of Pulaski trucking firm KTI, Ltd. “However, we’re not for tolls.”

King said KTI’s views of the issue are in line with the trucking industry: Rather than pay for the improvements with a toll system, increase fuel taxes.

King questioned why the Commonwealth would pay an estimated $34 million to collect tolls, when there is already a system in place for collecting fuel taxes. He believes those millions would be better spent elsewhere.

Of course, either method would result in added expense to KTI. Asked whether those extra costs would be passed on to customers, King said KTI would most likely have to absorb them in order to stay competitive in the trucking industry.

KTI pays about $4,000 per month for tolls in West Virginia, and they also have to pay a few tolls in North Carolina, according to King.

“North Carolina has great roads,” he said. He wondered why North Carolina is able to finance maintenance and construction on the many interstates it has, but Virginia can’t keep up three.

Jeffrey Southard, executive vice president of Virginia Transportation Construction Alliance (VTCA), said the group was “absolutely pleased” to hear legislation has been proposed to address issues on I-81. He believes a “Time to Upgrade I-81” initiative VTCA and VBT (Virginians for Better Transportation) launched at Holston River Quarry Inc. in Dublin in October helped bring about the legislation.

“We did as the Virginia Chamber of Commerce and business leaders did and provided information on how bad I-81 is and what can be done to fix it. Plus, we provided them with information on the public’s view.

Referring to a recent VTCA poll of registered voters living along the interstate corridor, he said, “It’s clear they want it fixed and they want it fixed now, and they’re willing to pay for it.”

Gov. Ralph Northam and a bipartisan group of legislators are proposing legislation that would establish an Interstate 81 Corridor Improvement Fund. The fund would be used exclusively to address $2.2 billion in needed improvements identified in public meetings held by the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB).

Under the legislation, cars and small trucks that use the interstate frequently would be able to purchase an annual pass for $30. Commercial trucks would pay a 17cents per mile toll, said to be among the lowest in the nation.

“There’s been serious discussion about funding improvements for 20 years; 20 years!” Southard said. “Now we’ve reached a critical point.”

While he doesn’t think the proposed funding method is out of line or excessive, he agreed funding will be a subject of debate during the General Assembly Session, which opened at noon Wednesday.

“I think they’ve laid out a good proposal to get it started. In the end, the legislation probably won’t look like it does now, but we have to have a starting point,” Southard said.

He thinks the only thing left to be ironed out is the right combination of funding sources.

Asked whether VTCA will be offering any suggestions related to proposed improvements or funding, Southard said they’ll leave decisions on the improvements up to the professionals and the citizens who identified problems at the public meetings.

He believes decisions on funding the improvements should be made by the people’s representatives.

In Pulaski County, most of the proposed improvements involve extensions to acceleration lanes at the exit on- and off-ramps.

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