Interstate 81

Rich Cooley/Daily

A draft of the I-81 Corridor Improvement Plan executive summary was approved Wednesday in Richmond by the Commonwealth Transportation Board and now moves to the Virginia General Assembly for consideration and possible approval.

“I am excited about the prospect of it moving forward,” said Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg. Obenshain was one of the senators who introduced Senate Bill 971, which directed staff from the Commonwealth Transportation Board, supported by the Office of Intermodal Planning and Investment, Virginia Department of Transportation and Department of Rail and Public Transportation, to conduct the study.

More than $4 billion in needed improvements were identified for the entire Interstate 81 corridor.  The board in its proposal, however, suggested about $2 billion be spent in the next seven to 10 years for a total of 63 projects along the 325-mile corridor, all designed to improve driving and safety along I-81.

In the Staunton District, there are four widening projects proposed, one auxiliary lane, two truck climbing lanes, 10 acceleration lanes, four deceleration lane extensions, one curve improvement, and one shoulder widening project for a total of 23 projects at a total cost $838.1 million.

Funding for the project still has to be worked out, Obenshain said, and as such what the final funding package may look like is unknown.

“We want to make sure this is done in a responsible way that does not unduly burden residents or businesses. We still have to work out the funding,” he said.

A financial analysis conducted by the Transportation Board suggests two alternative funding sources for these projects might include two regional taxes or tolling with a yearly annual pass. All financing considerations require the approval of the General Assembly.

The suggested regional tax could include a 2.1 percent regional fuels tax and a 0.7 percent retail and use tax.

Three potential tolling options the General Assembly could consider are:

• Tolling for trucks and non-commuters.

• Variable tolling between daytime and nighttime for trucks and non-commuters.

• Variable tolling with an annual auto pass with a suggestion of a $30 yearly pass for anyone driving the interstate, said study manager Ben Mannell.

“We examined the variable toll for autos and trucks with an annual auto pass option, and presented the financial analysis for that option in the report as it provided the lowest revenues that would still support the $2 billion package of improvements,” Mannell said.

The last suggestion of a yearly pass, if selected, would be a major departure.

The Transportation Board was initially directed not to consider tolling options that would apply to all drivers using I-81. It was this guidance to consider tolls on certain commercial trucks, but not on everyone driving the interstate, that could face a legal challenge. The Transportation Board suggested the option of an annual auto pass that could help fend off a lawsuit, Mannell said.

The draft states the annual auto pass could eliminate commuter/noncommuter distinction.

The Virginia Trucking Association has previously said that any proposal calling for truck-only tolls violates the anti-discrimination provisions of the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Obenshain said any tolling would be done with a gantry system that vehicles would drive underneath.

There would be an estimated six gantrys placed along the 325-mile route, he said.

“I don’t think someone driving from Edinburg to Tom’s Brook, however, should have to pay a toll,” Obenshain said.

Suggested projects in in the Northern Shenandoah Valley were revised from the last public hearing.

The revised list includes:

• Add southbound auxiliary lane between Exit 221 and Exit 220 in the Staunton area,

• Widen northbound and southbound to three lanes between Exit 225 and Exit 221 in the Staunton area.

• Add northbound truck climbing lane between mile marker 234 and 237.9 in the area of Augusta County

• Add southbound truck climbing lane between mile marker 238 and 235.6

• Widen northbound and southbound to three lanes between Exit 243 and Exit 248 in Harrisonburg area.

• Widen southbound to three lanes between mile marker 300.1 and 296.7 in the Strasburg and Interstate 66 area.

• Widen northbound and southbound to three lanes between Exit 313 and Exit 317, which would widen by one lane a congested stretch of the interstate.

The summary also made a recommendation of initiatives such as adding truck parking and additional speed enforcement on the interstate.

The I-81 Corridor Improvement Plan will be submitted for consideration to the General Assembly by Jan. 9, the first day of the new session.

Contact Melissa Topey at mtopey@nvdaily.com