I-81 bills advance: Senate votes to create plan, add fuel tax

Mark Obenshain

State legislators support studies aimed at making Interstate 81 safer but funding any improvements remains uncertain.

The state Senate voted 40-0 on Tuesday to direct the Commonwealth Transportation Board to develop and adopt an Interstate 81 Corridor Improvement Plan and to look at ways to pay for the recommended changes to the highway.

Also Tuesday, the Senate approved a bill sponsored by Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, that would impose an additional fuel tax of 2.1 percent in western Virginia that would be used to create a transportation fund to help pay for I-81 improvements.

Sen. Mark D. Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, sponsored the original bill that creates the improvement plan as well as directs the Commonwealth Transportation Board to create a plan that would look at tolling heavy commercial vehicles to finance corridor improvements.

“I want to be real clear that I don’t have all the answers and I don’t think that (the Virginia Department of Transportation) has all the answers right now,” Obenshain said. “But we have a lot of skilled professionals we can expect to come up with the answers and that’s not just where we need to spend the money but where are we gonna get the money to spend as well.”

The bill prohibits the Transportation Board from considering tolls on commuters who use the interstate regularly, Obenshain said.

“The interstate is a critical artery for people to earn their livelihoods and we want to make sure that that’s protected,” Obenshain said. “We also want to make sure those who’ve invested in infrastructure – warehousing, factories and distribution centers – that their investments are protected, so there’s gotta be a sweet spot.

“We’ve got to make sure we don’t undermine the economic vitality of our region … What we may find is that a measured solution is very achievable,” Obenshain went on to say.

A solution could include “reasonable” tolls for heavy trucks or tractor-trailers that don’t affect travel patterns, Obenshain added. On the other hand, the senator noted the study might find tolls inadequate. But this legislation marks a necessary step, Obenshain said.

“This is a serious bipartisan approach that is supported by people at the top of the interstate and at the bottom of the interstate as well as folks here in Richmond,” Obenshain said.

A bill Obenshain filed this session would have directed VDOT to create a pilot program to look at designated truck lanes along Interstate 81. The legislation was continued to the 2019 session.

Meanwhile, the House of Delegates adopted a joint resolution last week by a vote of 99-0 that establishes a joint subcommittee to study the feasibility of adding more lanes on Interstate 81 between Winchester and Bristol. Del. Israel D. O’Quinn, R-Bristol, sponsored the resolution that originally limited the study to adding lanes on the highway between Bristol and Wytheville. The Senate referred the resolution to its Committee on Rules on Monday.

The resolution cites the following statistics:

• The corridor accounts for 42 percent of statewide truck traffic and is used to transport $312 billion in goods each year.

• An average of 2,000 crashes and 30 major truck crashes with clearance times of more than six hours occur on the interstate each year.

• The loss of one lane on the interstate cuts highway capacity by 65 percent.

• Delays as a result of crashes undermine the reliability of the transportation corridor.

The resolution calls for the creation of a joint committee of state senators and delegates consisting of 10 legislative representatives and one ex-officio member. Specifically, the resolution calls for the speaker of the House of Delegates to appoint six members of the house and the Senate Committee on Rules to appoint four senators. The Secretary of Transportation or his designee would serve as the ex officio member with voting privileges.

The subcommittee would  determine the feasibility and practicality of widening portions of Interstate 81 between Winchester and Bristol to three lanes in each direction.

The resolution limits the subcommittee to four meetings in 2018 and the direct cost of the study to no more than $18,800 without approval. The subcommittee must complete its meetings by Nov. 30 and its chairman shall submit the findings to the Division of Legislative Automated Systems no later than the first day of the 2019 regular session of the General Assembly.

However, the Joint Rules Committee may approve or disapprove spending for the study, extend or delay the study period or authorize more meetings this year.

Obenshain said that O’Quinn’s bill takes a different approach to address the same problem. Obenshain said he and O’Quinn are in agreement in principle.

Hanger’s bill calling for an additional fuel tax of 2.1 percent in 31 counties and 14 cities in western Virginia, including Winchester and Frederick, Warren and Shenandoah counties, would create the Western Virginia Transportation Fund.

The legislation passed the Senate 24-16. Obenshain and 15 other Republicans voted against it.

“While Sen. Hanger and I agree that we need to do something to improve Interstate 81 and to make it safer, we disagree about how to do it,” Obenshain said earlier this session. “I do not agree that we should impose a higher gas tax on residents along the 81 corridor to pay for it.”

DeForrest Ballou of Capital News Service contributed to this story.