Just a few hundred yards from the traffic in Salem, Governor Ralph Northam made a new pitch to improve Interstate 81.
“As people along I-81 know, the road is unreliable and often unsafe,” Northam said. Every year, there are more than 2,000 crashes on the highway that runs the length of western Virginia, according statistics from the Virginia Department of Transportation. About 45 of those crashes take more than four hours to clear.
The Commonwealth Transportation Board has a plan to improve the highway. Officials say it would cut the number of crashes and reduce delays. But it also carries a $2 billion price tag. "I-81 has no dedicated funding source and existing resources cannot support the improvements it needs," Northam admitted.
The budget amendment outlined by Northam Thursday would start funding that work by increasing truck and diesel fees statewide and instituting a 2.1 percent gas tax in the I-81 Corridor. “We can’t keep waiting to fix I-81," Northam said. "Improving this road is critical to the economy of western Virginia and to the safety of all those who travel I-81.”
The proposal would provide about $150 million each year for the Interstate 81 Corridor Improvement Fund, according to Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine. Portions of the statewide fee increases would be directed to projects in other parts of the state, based on the number of truck miles traveled on various interstates. About 41 percent of truck traffic in Virginia is on Interstate 81. All of the money raised by the regional fuel tax, estimated at $60 million, would be dedicated to I-81 projects.
An earlier plan to raise the money through tolls was opposed by the trucking industry and couldn’t get traction in the General Assembly. Dale Bennett, CEO of the Virginia Trucking Association, said his industry recognizes the need for safer highways and the need for money to make it happen. "This package, we believe, is certainly fairer, wherein all the people who are benefitting from these improvements are making a contribution to it," Bennet said after the announcement. "Trucking is paying a significant share of the money that will be spent but all users that benefit will be contributing as well. "
The General Assembly will consider Northam’s plan when it meets for a one-day session on April 3rd.