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Northam tries to resuscitate I-81 plan

By MELINDA WILLIAMS

melinda@southwesttimes.com

 Just as it appeared the Interstate 81 Corridor Improvement Plan would be in limbo for another year, action by Gov. Ralph Northam Thursday is trying to breathe new life into the project. It’s a plan the trucking industry says it can support.

Northam has amended legislation recently passed by the Virginia General Assembly to specify how the improvements will be funded. By amending Senate Bill 1716 and House Bill 2718, the governor is trying to ensure the plan is implemented, as well as establishing a plan to generate revenue for the Commonwealth’s other interstates.

However, to become effective, the amendments must receive approval from the General Assembly when it reconvenes April 3.

The amendments abandon proposals to fund improvements with tolls. Instead, truck registration fees, diesel fuel taxes and the road tax on large trucks in Virginia will be brought in line with those in other states along the 855-mile I-81 corridor. The motor fuels tax rate along the corridor also would increase by 2.1 percent.

“The trucking industry understands the importance of safe and efficient highways, and in particular Interstate 81. The Virginia Trucking Association (VTA) supports the Governor’s package of amendments to address needed improvements to I-81 by raising funds from all highway users,”

VTA stated in response to the amendments. The group points out the trucking industry and its customers will “pay a large share of the cost” of improving I-81 and other Virginia interstates under Northam’s plan, “but it is more efficient and less harmful than tolling existing highways.”

Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates (ATFI) also put its support behind the amendments, stating it “is pleased Governor Northam has abandoned his call for tolls and put forth a new plan to fund improvements to Interstate 81 through other funding mechanisms.

“We know Virginians want to improve I-81 and are willing to pay for it. But how they pay for it matters, and they let that opinion be known. By using methods of funding other than tolls, Governor Northam is recommending funding strategies that allow Virginia to maintain control of its implementation and enable more money to go toward improving interstates rather than wasting money on tolling bureaucracies. This is smart policy, and other states should take notice.”

Under the amended legislation, $151 million would be invested in I-81; $40 million in I-95; $128 million in I-64; $20 million in Northern Virginia Transit Authority, and $43 million would be reserved for investment in other interstates. Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) would determine other interstates to receive funding.

The Interstate 81 Corridor Improvement Plan was approved by CTB in December. While Senate Bill 1716 and House Bill 2718, as passed by the General Assembly established a dedicated Interstate 81 Corridor Improvement Fund, it failed to establish a mechanism for funding.

“This is a rare opportunity for the Roanoke and New River Valley regions to get the dedicated funding for Interstate 81 that we deserve,” said 12th District Delegate Chris Hurst, who represents a portion of Pulaski County. “This plan will also help fund transportation projects around the Commonwealth and should be seen as a major investment in critical infrastructure for everyone’s benefit.”

If the amended legislation doesn’t receive General Assembly approval, funding will be in limbo until the 2020 General Assembly session.

The Interstate 81 Corridor Improvement Plan identified top problem areas and prioritized potential solutions based on public input. It can be viewed at www.va81corridor.org.

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