State legislators call on Congress for help with I-81

Traffic backs up along I-81 southbound on a Friday evening in this view off Junction Road near Strasburg. Rich Cooley/Daily

More than a dozen state legislators want Virginia’s congressional members to push for federal help to make Interstate 81 safer.

State Sens. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, and C. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, joined 15 legislators in signing a letter seeking assistance in Virginia’s efforts to address safety and congestion along the highway. Delegates Christopher Collins, R-Winchester, and Dave LaRock, R-Hamilton, also signed the letter. Collins and LaRock serve on the House of Delegates Transportation Committee.

The delegates and state senators sent the letter to U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, both Democrats, and to U.S. Reps. Bob Goodlatte, R-Roanoke, Barbara Comstock, R-McLean, and Morgan Griffith, R-Salem. The letter seeks a response to the request and for a commitment from each recipient to address the matter in Congress this year.

“We support our colleagues and we will work with our state and local officials on making this a priority, as well as work to find more federal resources towards this effort,” Comstock states in an email Tuesday.

Comstock’s congressional district stretches from the Washington, D.C., suburbs into the Northern Shenandoah Valley and includes the entire section of I-81 through Frederick County.

Goodlatte’s district covers a much longer stretch of the interstate.

“I-81 traverses much of the 6th District, and like many folks I use this route several times each week when traveling to and from Washington and making stops in communities along the way,” Goodlatte states in a email Tuesday. “I share the concerns of state legislators about the safety of motorists on I-81, and agree with the need for improvements to the corridor.

“We must keep in mind the costs involved with these improvements as well as the need for public support for a comprehensive plan regarding I-81,” Goodlatte went on to state. “This is an important issue, and I will continue looking for ways to work with state legislators on improving I-81 as discussions about infrastructure projects move forward.”

The letter from the state legislators goes into more detail about the need for federal assistance.

“As you know, I-81 is in dire need of improvements to increase safety and relieve congestion,” the letter states. “Accidents on the Staunton to Winchester leg of I-81 in particular continue to rise, as does the congestion impacting commuters.”

The letter stated that the highway carries 42 percent of the state’s truck traffic volume. Trucks make up 20-30 percent of the traffic volume on some sections of the interstate, the letter notes.

A Virginia Department of Transportation study identified 41 projects along the interstate.

“Unfortunately, due to a lack of adequate federal funding, these projects have not been brought to fruition,” the letter states. “Ultimately, these problems will not be resolved without addressing the need for an additional travel lane at important safety pinch points, a project the Commonwealth cannot afford without federal assistance.”

The signers of the letter request that the congressional delegation work with President Donald Trump’s administration in order to secure funding for Virginia’s interstates and improvements to I-81 in particular.

“President Trump has demonstrated a commitment to improving our Nation’s infrastructure and I believe our Congressional Delegation, working in conjunction with the Administration, will be able to address this longstanding transportation and public safety need in the Shenandoah Valley,” the letter states.

As with many initiatives pushing for safety improvements on roads and highways, it took a series of fatal crashes to spur action. Last year, Frederick County Sheriff Lenny Millholland gathered support from other law enforcement leaders in jurisdictions along the I-81 corridor in calling on state legislators to make the highway safer. The push came after fatal crashes occurred on the interstate in the area. Then legislators in the region started their efforts to seek improvements to the highway.

Obenshain introduced a bill in the state senate for this session that, if enacted into law, directs the Virginia Department of Transportation to conduct a pilot program to set up zones along Interstate 81 in the Staunton District that would restrict tractor-trailer traffic to the right lane only. Another bill filed by Obenshain directs the Commonwealth Transportation Board to develop and adopt an Interstate 81 Corridor Improvement Plan and evaluate the feasibility of imposing tolls on heavy commercial vehicles. The tolls would cover the cost to improve the corridor.