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Virginia’s legislature sees no short-term fix for congestion on I-81

A slide from JLARC's presentation on I-81 traffic and toll feasibility
Virginia's Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission
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A slide from JLARC's presentation on I-81 traffic and toll feasibility

Western Virginia's rolling terrain and high level of truck traffic make it a tough nut for Virginia’s traffic gurus to crack. The I-81 corridor improvement program, passed by legislators following a study in 2018, is on track to address some of the issues, but not before inflation and other hold ups add a billion and a half dollars and two years to the project’s timeline.

One proposal to address the issue was a public private partnership that would implement tolls. But at a recent meeting of the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, or JLARC, analyst Kate Hopkins said conditions along the highway make tolls unfeasible.

“Essentially there’s not enough recurring congestion on 81 for there to be enough demand for a managed lane, and so the concessionaire wouldn’t be able to recoup their investment just from the toll revenue itself and the state would need to subsidize the project pretty heavily,” Hopkins told legislators.

That was bad news to Harrisonburg Delegate Tony Wilt, who spoke with Radio IQ following the meeting.

“I heard far more from people saying we’re tired of seeing the wrecks, the loss of life and property and time," Wilt said. "They want something done.”

But the JLARC presentation didn’t offer recommendations. Another $245 million was appropriated in the recent budget, but until new revenues are found, Wilt said the reality is something western Virginia’s residents may be all too familiar with...

“Let’s use what we’ve got and keep moving forward with that.”

JLARC analyst Kate Hopkins said the current corridor improvement plan would likely wrap up in 2036, and further study of improvements to 81 wouldn’t be worthwhile for another few years.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Brad Kutner is Radio IQ's reporter in Richmond.