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No toll booths on I-81

Conditional approval rescinded with OK for Interstate 95 plan

By Sally Voth -- svoth@nvdaily.com

Gov. Bob McDonnell sounded the death knell on Monday for tolling on Interstate 81.

The Federal Highway Administration has given preliminary approval to the Virginia Department of Transportation to begin his plan to toll drivers on Interstate 95, McDonnell said.

The tolling would be under the Interstate Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program, according to a news release from the governor's office.

That program has had authority to charge tolls on I-81 since 2003, but Monday's announcement marks the end of the proposal.

"As part of this approval, VDOT's conditional provisional approval to toll I-81 will be rescinded," the release says.

That was welcome news to the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation, which has opposed tolling, which it sees as a necessary step for widening the highway.

"The Battlefields Foundation has never thought that tolling I-81 would be an effective or practical way to make road improvements and to raise highway revenue, simply because of the narrow channel in which I-81 runs between the Massanutten Mountain and the towns, and the river, depending on what part of the valley you're in," the foundation's executive director, Denman Zirkle, said Monday. "Traffic that would be diverted from I-81 to keep from paying the tolls would overwhelm the other road networks, particularly in the area between Harrisonburg and Strasburg."

Shenandoah Forum Chairwoman Carolyn Long, however, was taking a more "cautiously optimistic" approach.

"It's a catch-22 because even though people that take 95 generally aren't going to take 81, there could be the potential of diverted traffic to avoid the tolls," she said.
But, anything preventing I-81 from being tolled is good for area businesses, Long said. Still, the situation bears monitoring.

"You always have to be watchful for what they have planned for that road, especially the widening," Long said.

Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, and Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, got legislation passed several years ago that prevents VDOT from tolling I-81 without specific General Assembly permission, Gilbert said.

"That's not a protection that existed for Interstate 95," he said.

Tolling I-95 could cause even more traffic on I-81 if it leads to more vehicles diverting to the valley, Gilbert said.

"The tolling of I-95 would be unprecedented in Virginia in terms of its scope," he said. "In general, I'm not opposed to toll roads being built as toll roads because it's a cost-effective way of building new roads, but I don't think people should have to pay to drive or haul products on a road that they've already paid for many times over."

McDonnell's press secretary, Jeff Caldwell, said in a Monday email that tolling on I-95 could start in about two years.

The tolls could generate about $50 million a year, according to the release, and help pay for expansion, safety and operational improvements, as well as paving projects.

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