It was the very definition of “irony.”
Gov. Ralph Northam was in Salem earlier this month for a ceremonial signing of legislation approved in the 2019 session of the General Assembly to establish a funding mechanism for safety improvements and upgrades to Interstate 81. In tow were top officials from the Virginia Department of Transporation traveling from Richmond, including Commissioner Stephen Brich, but they almost didn’t make the big event in Salem.
Why? Because they were caught in a horrendous traffic jam on I-81, resulting from a vehicle crash. Fortunately, they were able to detour the parallel U.S. 11 and made it to Salem on time.
But the incident is just one example of why the upcoming improvements to I-81 are so important.
I-81, which runs 325 miles in Virginia from near Winchester down the Valley of Virginia to Roanoke on its way to Bristol, is the longest stretch of interstate highway in the commonwealth. It’s also a workhorse of the state and regional economies: Fully 40 percent of the commercial truck traffic in Virginia, either internally or passing through, travels on I-81. Its economic impact is felt far and wide in this part of Virginia.
That explains why numerous chambers of commerce in Central and Southwestern Virginia, including the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance, made lobbying for I-81 improvements their top priority this year in Richmond.
Initially, Northam put forward a funding package for I-81 with tolling of the highway serving as the prime revenue stream to pay for the estimated $2.2 billion in new construction and safety upgrades. Though tolling is the quintessential user fee, the trucking industry, both in Virginia and nationally, fought the idea tooth and nail, contending it was unfair to place such a burden on them. Though the governor’s proposal wound up grinding to a halt in the House of Delegates, a last-minute alternative proposal surfaced that wound up drawing enough support to pass both the House and state Senate.
Special fuel tax districts were designated in the I-81 corridor to pay for the work; in order to pull in support from other legislators in Central Virginia, Richmond and Tidewater, similar districts were designated on the Interstate 64 and Interstate 95 corridors.
The special fuel districts take effect July 1. Of the money generated, 41 percent goes to I-81, 17.9 percent to the I-95 corridor outside of Northern Virginia, 12.6 percent to I-64, 9.1 percent to the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority and 19.4 percent to pay for improvements to other interstate highways in Virginia. (Details of the plan can be found online at https://bit.ly/2MJH229.)
Is it the perfect solution? No. Ideally, we preferred tolls with all the revenue going to I-81. But politics is the art of the possible, and the compromise funding package Northam signed into law is far better than kicking the can down the road once again. To kick the work into high gear, though, we fully expect future Assembly sessions to find additional dollars for I-81 — this is a project that’s too important to Virginia not to.