Legislator's I-81 package moves on - minus two

| Thursday, February 24, 2005

Virginia Delegate Ben Cline has struck out on a couple of proposals intended to improve safety and ease congestion on Interstate 81, but he’s still in the batters box with a couple of others.

Earlier this year, the Northern Virginia lawmaker introduced a series of bills and budget amendments aimed at widening some segments of the interstate, increasing the number of state trooper patrols along the corridor, and promoting rail improvements to divert some of the freight now being hauled by trucks.

He said his “low-cost, no-cost reforms” – which have a price tag of about $4 million – could address urgent safety and congestion issues on I-81 while state transportation officials continue reviewing a privately developed plan to widen the entire Virginia corridor and create separate lanes for trucks.

A bill that would have increased penalties for parking on highway exit ramps died when a House panel failed to take up the measure and pass it to the full House prior to the Feb. 8 deadline for bills to move from their originating chamber.

The measure – HB2609 – called for violators to be fined as much as $500 and be subjected to as many as four demerit points added to their driver’s license.

The House Transportation Committee shelved another Cline-created effort that sought to allow state police to place retired patrol cars in the median of I-81 to deter speeders. The panel voted 13-7 to kill the bill – HB2608.

Cline, R-Amherst, told The Roanoke Times he won’t give up on the idea, even though lawmakers have rejected it in each of the past two years.

Meanwhile, a handful of proposals have advanced through the Virginia House and are closer to becoming law.

A proposed amendment to the 2004-2006 state budget would provide $110,000 in overtime pay for state troopers patrolling I-81.

Another amendment included in the House budget would provide additional funding for widening projects along the interstate. One such project would add a third, truck-climbing lane on I-81 northbound from Lexington to Raphine.

A third budget amendment would provide more than $10 million in new funding for rail improvements by redirecting a $2 fee assessed on driver’s licenses into a rail improvement fund.

The Senate approved a bill that would create a permanent I-81 safety task force that would include private citizens, a state police representative, local government officials and representatives of the trucking and highway construction industries.

The bill – HB2554 – combined with a resolution – HJ709 – offered by Cline, would encourage Virginia to work with other states to improve intermodal rail transportation along the coast. HB2554, which previously passed the House, is headed to Gov. Mark Warner for final approval.

Cline insists that an improved rail system is a key element to diverting some freight from the corridor and reducing truck traffic.

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