Virginia special session ends without approval for I-81 package

| 10/3/2006

A bitter battle over transportation funding in Virginia ended Thursday, Sept. 28, after lawmakers wrapped up their special session without reaching an agreement on a long-term solution. Among the efforts that failed to gain approval was a legislative package to address safety and ease congestion along Interstate 81.

The breakdown in talks for how to come up with about $1 billion a year in additional revenue for roads, bridges and tunnels fell along the same lines as what led to this year’s budget impasse that dragged out the regular session.

Problems stem from Republican leaders in the House and Senate who haven’t been able to reach agreement on funding sources. Senate leaders say new revenue – including a fuel tax increase – is needed to address congestion and maintenance costs, while House leaders are vehemently opposed to higher taxes and fees.

The final straw came Wednesday, Sept. 29, when a Senate panel rejected the bulk of a $2.4 billion House transportation plan that relied heavily on debt and existing revenues that otherwise would be earmarked for schools, health care and other services, The Associated Press reported.

Sponsored by Delegate Ben Cline, R-Amherst, the I-81 package included legislation to widen some segments of the interstate, increase the number of state troopers patrolling the corridor, and promote rail improvements to divert some freight now being hauled by trucks.

The first bill – HB5073 – would have tapped private groups to speed construction of limited third lanes for truck climbing on steep stretches along I-81. The bill also would have halted VDOT from considering a proposal from a road builders’ consortium, dubbed Star Solutions, to add two separate truck-only toll lanes in both directions to run the length of the roadway in the state.

Another bill – HB5074 – required the Virginia State Police to add 10 additional troopers to patrol the corridor. Another 20 would have patrolled Interstates 64 and 95.

One other bill – HB5075 – would have provided tax credits for rail companies that improve their lines for intermodal freight transport.

Each of Cline’s bills remained in a House committee at the deadline to advance from the chamber to the Senate.

These and other efforts to come up with funding for transportation projects will have to wait until next year during the regular session that begins in January.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor