Next in Vir­ginia’s toll net­work: I-81

Fees would pay for up­grades on a road cru­cial to com­merce

The Washington Post Sunday - - COMMUTER - BY LUZ LAZO [email protected]­

Vir­ginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) joined Repub­li­can law­mak­ers Tues­day in an­nounc­ing a pro­posal to toll In­ter­state 81 to gen­er­ate money to pay for $2.2 bil­lion of im­prove­ments needed along the cor­ri­dor that serves as main street for western Vir­ginia and a ma­jor eco­nomic artery for the state.

The plan, to be in­tro­duced in the Vir­ginia Gen­eral Assem­bly ses­sion that started Wed­nes­day, would es­tab­lish tolls as a source of rev­enue for “crit­i­cal im­prove­ments” iden­ti­fied in a state study of the route that stretches 325 miles across Vir­ginia be­tween the state’s bor­ders with Ten­nessee and West Vir­ginia and has ma­jor safety and re­li­a­bil­ity prob­lems.

With the pro­posal, Northam and law­mak­ers rep­re­sent­ing the western part of the state are choos­ing to push a toll sys­tem over es­tab­lish­ing a regional gas tax to pay for the I-81 im­prove­ments and in do­ing so declar­ing broader sup­port for ex­pand­ing the state’s toll net­work. Vir­ginia in re­cent years has sig­nif­i­cantly in­creased its toll net­work, es­tab­lish­ing sys­tems along sev­eral ma­jor high­ways, in­clud­ing In­ter­states 95, 495, 66 and 64.

The pro­posed leg­is­la­tion would es­tab­lish lim­its on toll rates and give some road users, in­clud­ing com­muters and small trucks, the op­tion to pur­chase an an­nual pass that would al­low un­lim­ited use of the road, Northam said. The tolls could gen­er­ate $145 mil­lion in the first year and $166 mil­lion an­nu­ally by the fifth year, ac­cord­ing to a state re­port un­veiled last month.

The plan as­sumes six gantries in each di­rec­tion along the cor­ri­dor, and tolls would vary ac­cord­ing to time of day (day­time vs. night­time) and type of ve­hi­cle (trucks vs. cars). The an­nual pass would cost a pro­jected $30, and driv­ers would travel at least 40 miles be­tween gantries.

The pro­posal comes with bi­par­ti­san sup­port from mem­bers of the Gen­eral Assem­bly rep­re­sent­ing the cor­ri­dor, ac­cord­ing to the gov­er­nor’s of­fice.

Northam said all rev­enue col­lected would be used in the I-81 cor­ri­dor for projects such as widen­ing the high­way, mak­ing curb im­prove­ments and adding aux­il­iary lanes. Op­er­a­tional im­prove­ments in­clude ex­panded use of traf­fic cam­eras and mes­sage boards, more safety ser­vice pa­trols, im­prove­ments to par­al­lel roads, en­hance­ments to truck park­ing, and con­tract­ing with an emer­gency pa­trol ser­vice to clear crashes faster and re­duce im­pacts on traf­fic.

“It’s time we take de­ci­sive ac­tion to en­hance the safety and im­prove the re­li­a­bil­ity of this key cor­ri­dor,” Northam said in an­nounc­ing the pro­posal, which he said would be in­tro­duced by state Sens. Mark D. Oben­shain (R-Har­rison­burg) and Charles W. Car­rico Sr. (R-Grayson) and Dels. R. Steven Lan­des (R-Au­gusta) and Terry L. Austin (R-Bote­tourt).

More than one-third of all trucks and nearly 50 per­cent of the state’s value of goods are car­ried along the in­ter­state, mak­ing the cor­ri­dor crit­i­cal to Vir­ginia’s econ­omy, ac­cord­ing to a state re­port. Trucks make about 11.7 mil­lion trips along the cor­ri­dor each year. It also is a key piece of the East Coast freight net­work.

But the cor­ri­dor has safety and re­li­a­bil­ity prob­lems, ac­cord­ing to the study, which was pre­pared by the con­sult­ing firm Kim­leyHorn. More than 2,000 crashes oc­cur an­nu­ally along the route, 26 per­cent in­volv­ing heavy trucks — the high­est per­cent­age for any in­ter­state in Vir­ginia, ac­cord­ing to the re­port. The crashes re­sult in sig­nif­i­cant travel de­lays on the high­way, which has two lanes in each di­rec­tion for most of its length.

Al­though im­prove­ments have been made over the years to keep up with growth, the increasing traf­fic load has de­graded the road’s per­for­mance, the re­port said.

“Travel is an­tic­i­pated to con­tinue to in­crease on I-81, with truck traf­fic grow­ing at a faster pace than pas­sen­ger ve­hi­cle traf­fic,” the re­port said, pro­ject­ing nearly 20 mil­lion trucks trips car­ry­ing $750 bil­lion worth of goods an­nu­ally by 2040. “With­out im­ple­men­ta­tion of an im­prove­ment plan, per­for­mance con­di­tions along the cor­ri­dor are ex­pected to con­tinue to de­grade as traf­fic con­tin­ues to grow,” the re­port said.

State law­mak­ers said the pro­posal could be the an­swer to es­tab­lish­ing a fund­ing source for im­prove­ments that would make the cor­ri­dor safer and more re­li­able for all road users.

“The hard-work­ing ci­ti­zens in the com­mu­ni­ties on the I-81 Cor­ri­dor de­serve a vi­able, long-term so­lu­tion to the chal­lenges of travel along this route,” Lan­des said in the gov­er­nor’s news re­lease. “A fo­cus on key im­prove­ments and ded­i­cated fund­ing for the cor­ri­dor will pos­i­tively af­fect those who rely on it ev­ery day.”

An­nual truck trips on I-81 could reach nearly 20 mil­lion by 2040 from 11.7 mil­lion to­day.

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