Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, along with Sen. Bill Carrico R-Grayson, introduced a bill Wednesday that spelled out funding options for a massive Interstate 81 corridor improvements project.
The bill calls for $2.2 billion in funding to be collected by tolling, primarily for heavy commercial trucks that Obenshain said do more damage to interstates then personal vehicles.
There would be six gantries placed about 50 miles apart on I-81 that drivers would travel underneath, incurring tolls. The Virginia section of I-81 extends about 325 miles.
Vehicles with a pass would have either a toll sticker or some type of transponder that would be read by the gantry and the account discounted the toll amount.
If a vehicle does not have a toll sticker or transponder, the gantry would take a photo of the drivers license and bill the vehicle owner.
There are no plans for toll booths, which would slow down traffic.
If voted in, the bill would not, however, place the burden of paying for the improvements exclusively on commercial trucks, Obenshain said.
It allows local drivers to pass through, at no cost, one gantry each way once a day without tolls. Drivers who travel more miles on the interstate would have to purchase an annual pass for $30, he said.
Obenshain said he believes adding a pass for passenger cars would share the burden of paying for improvements, and in doing so avoid violating the Interstate Commerce Clause in the U.S. Constitution.
Rich Pianka, deputy general counsel for the American Trucking Association, said he believes the bill would violate the clause.
“We are disappointed they are thinking about going down this ill-advised path,” Pianka said.
The commerce clause was enacted so that states could not place funding for a project on the backs of those out of state, Pianka said.
There is still a lot that has to happen and a lot of time will pass during which the proposal could change or be dropped, he said.
“But if they continue down this path, we will keep all options open,” he added.
If Virginia were to enact the proposal, a lawsuit might arise.
“We sued Rhode Island for the same thing,” Pianka said.
In that court case, Rhode Island has asked for the case to be dismissed. That motion was argued in court, and all parties are awaiting a decision from the judge.
“States have to get the message that they can’t use interstate trucking as a piggy bank,” Pianka said.
Obenshain said people and organizations threaten to sue every day.
“We believe this is constitutional,” Obenshain said.
Other funding sources that were considered were a sales tax and a fuels tax. They were dismissed, however, because most truckers drive through the state without making purchases, which results in residents having to pay for the project.
Obenshain said there is bipartisan support for the bill, but admits it is early in the session.
“This will continue to develop,” he said. “It is stimulating a lot of discussion.”
That discussion is not new. For years, he said, people acknowledged that there was a problem with safety on I-81.
“But they did nothing about it,” he said, adding that action is now happening to improve safety.