Shortly after Virginia’s Commonwealth Transportation Board submitted its recommendations on how to pay for the Interstate 81 Corridor Improvement Plan, Gov. Ralph Northam, along with nearly a dozen lawmakers, announced a draft legislative proposal on the matter. Rather than choosing the regional tax option, Northam is calling for tolls on all vehicles, except commuters.
On Tuesday, Jan. 8, just a day before the General Assembly begins its new session, Gov. Northam announced proposed legislation that will establish an Interstate 81 Corridor Improvement Fund to pay for more than $2 billion in projects. That fund includes a toll along I-81.
“Interstate 81 is the economic engine of western Virginia, and it’s time we take decisive action to enhance the safety and improve the reliability of this key corridor,” Northam said in a statement. “I am committed to working with legislators on both sides of the aisle to establish a dedicated funding source that will support the critical improvements that Interstate 81 needs to move goods and people around the Commonwealth.”
If the proposal follows the plan adopted by the transportation in December, trucks will be tolled at 15 cents per mile from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. and 7.5 cents from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. Other vehicles will be tolled 7.5 cents per mile during the day and 5 cents during nighttime hours.
As suggested by the transportation board, the toll option includes an annual auto pass for commuters. For an annual fee, passenger vehicles used for commuting will have unlimited use of I-81 without paying tolls. This provision avoids tolling commuters, as instructed by the General Assembly.
According to a news release from the governor’s office, revenues collected would only be used for improvements included in the Interstate 81 Corridor Improvement Plan that was adopted by the transportation board.
Not everyone is happy with the tolls. The Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates pointed out that previous attempts to establish new tolls in the state have been unsuccessful.
“Virginia has a long history of rejecting tolls on existing interstates,” ATFI spokesperson Stephanie Kane said in a statement. “Unfortunately, Virginia policymakers are again steering toward an old idea in hopes of arriving at a different conclusion than in years past. Imposing tolls on existing lanes on I-81 will increase shipping costs for goods, suppress consumer activity, waste revenues on bureaucratic administration, double-tax businesses, divert traffic onto local roads, and negatively impact residents and communities located around toll facilities.”
Tolling was not the only option. Within its recommendations, the transportation board also suggested a regional tax option in lieu of a toll. That option includes a retail sales tax at a 0.7 percent rate and a fuel tax at 2.1 percent.
The General Assembly has authorized a similar tax before in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. Estimated annual revenue for the tax option would reach $165 million by 2020, $20 million more than what the toll option is expected to earn.
Although the trucking industry escaped early speculation of a truck-only toll, the Virginia Trucking Association believes the governor made the wrong decision.
“Of the two options presented by the CTB, the Virginia Trucking Association supports establishing a regional tax district to increase sales and use tax along I-81, much like Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads have done to fund regional surface transportation projects,” VTA President and CEO Dale Bennett said in a statement. “Funding I-81 improvements through regional tax increases will raise sufficient money for I-81 improvements without all the negative consequences of tolls.”
Final decisions are still up the General Assembly, who may tweak its proposed bill. Legislation will be sponsored by Sens. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, and Bill Carrico, R-Grayson, and by Delegates Steve Landes, R-Weyers Cave, and Terry Austin, R-Botetourt, in the House.
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