The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan approved by the federal government in March to address the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic includes billions of dollars that Virginia and its localities can use for road improvements.
U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Virginia Transportation Secretary Shannon Valentine were in Winchester on Friday morning to hear how local and state representatives would like to use that money to better the 325-mile section of Interstate 81 that runs through the commonwealth.
“When you get one-time money, using it for infrastructure is smart,” Kaine told the group assembled on the fourth floor of Rouss City Hall.
Del. Bill Wiley, R-Winchester, pulled no punches, telling Kaine the portion of I-81 in the Northern Shenandoah Valley is “the red-headed stepchild. We’re always third or fourth priority.”
Wiley and several others who attended Friday’s session told Kaine and Valentine that when federal and state governments earmark money for transportation improvements in Virginia, funds frequently are directed by the Commonwealth Transportation Board and Virginia Department of Transportation to more populous areas, particularly Northern Virginia. Meanwhile, the two-lane I-81 corridor in Frederick County cannot adequately handle its increasingly high volumes of vehicular traffic, resulting in frequent slowdowns and vehicle crashes.
“We’re way behind and need to get going,” Wiley said.
Chris Kyle, chairman of the GO Virginia Region 8 Council, agreed, saying the formula currently used by Virginia to determine how to best spend transportation dollars needs to change to better reflect the long-standing needs of the state’s western half, including the Northern Shenandoah Valley.
“The dollars come to the state,” Kyle said. “Let’s stop them before they go east.”
Dale Bennett, president and CEO of the Richmond-based Virginia Trucking Association, said an inefficient I-81 is not just frustrating and dangerous. It also hurts the environment because tractor-trailers slowed by bottlenecks emit more exhaust fumes and consume more fuel than they would if traffic flowed freely.
David Covington, I-81 program delivery director at the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), said the state is already planning to add a third lane to northbound and southbound I-81 between Exits 313 and 317 in Winchester, but it’s not clear when work would begin.
Mark Merrill, Staunton District representative on the Commonwealth Transportation Board, said he would like the I-81 lane widening in Winchester to extend farther south to Stephens City due to the area’s high volume of traffic.
“I think we have to do more,” Merrill said.
Del. Wendy Gooditis, D-Clarke County, told Kaine she is grateful that Merrill, a Winchester resident, is on the Commonwealth Transportation Board because he will be a solid resource for helping to improve local conditions on I-81.
“I’m just so thankful for the work being done,” Gooditis said.
Kaine said the federal government will let states and localities determine the best way to invest American Rescue Plan funds when they’re distributed in the coming weeks and months, as long as the spending falls within the assistance program’s parameters. However, Congress could strongly encourage recipients to focus on specific areas of longstanding need.
“As we talk about the infrastructure portion going to roads, we might be able to write criteria that would really advantage I-81,” Kaine said, particularly if states along the corridor have already identified problem areas and developed improvement plans.
In Virginia, Valentine said, plans to improve I-81 in the Winchester area have been on the books for more than 20 years.