After SB971 was signed into law in April by Gov. Ralph Northam, the Virginia Commonwealth Transportation Board has been busy getting a study ready that looks into tolls for trucks only and/or high-occupancy vehicles. Recently, the board officially launched the I-81 corridor study, including four public hearings.
On Tuesday, May 15, Nick Donohue, deputy secretary of transportation in Virginia, presented the I-81 Corridor Improvement Plan during the transportation board’s monthly workshop meeting.
During the presentation. Donohue announced details of public hearings to be hosted by metropolitan planning organizations:
- June 6: Abingdon/Bristol – Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center
- June 7: Salem – Salem Civic Center
- June 12: Staunton (north) – Strasburg High School
- June 13: Staunton (south) – Blue Ridge Community College
All meetings are scheduled from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. The first hour will include a briefing of public officials, with the remaining time for a citizen’s information meeting. This first round of public hearings is for the presentation of data and solicitation of solution input. “Recommendations development” public hearings are planned in July and August. Public hearings for “recommended corridor plan” are scheduled for September and October.
Dale Bennett, president and CEO of the Virginia Trucking Association, has advice to drivers who may want to weigh in during the first round of public hearings.
“Because the first round of hearings are focused on ‘problem identification’ related to safety and congestion issues, drivers should be prepared to talk about the most difficult areas of I-81 for them to drive and offer their ideas and suggestions for solutions to address them,” Bennett told Land Line. “They should also discuss driving behaviors and road conditions that they believe create the safety and congestion problems on I-81.”
As mandated in SB971, the state will study possible tolls on heavy commercial vehicles and high-occupancy toll lanes. However, the bill prohibits the state from studying toll options that would apply to all users of I-81. The board can also explore other funding and financing options, such as regional fuel taxes.
Part of the I-81 Corridor Improvement Plan is to identify segments that need improvement and subsequently identify what improvements are needed. Furthermore, the study will evaluate concepts to minimize the impact of truck-only tolls on local truck traffic and diversion of truck traffic.
“This corridor is critical to the economic vitality of the Bristol, Salem and Staunton districts, and to our entire commonwealth,” Virginia Transportation Secretary Shannon Valentine said in a statement. “The study’s focus on safety, reliability and resiliency is vital to trucking, business and manufacturing sectors.”
The next phase in the study will be identifying problem segments. This will include examining crash rate/frequency, hours of delay due to congestion, and incident-related delay and multiple-hour lane closures. Findings of these areas will be revealed during the Commonwealth Transportation Board’s July meeting.
Interstate 81 comprises 29 percent of Virginia’s 1,118 miles of interstate highway and carries 42 percent of all large truck vehicle miles traveled on interstate highways in the Commonwealth, according to Virginia Department of Transportation data.
As the Virginia Trucking Association pointed out, every truck over 26,000 pounds that travels on I-81 pays an apportioned registration fee to Virginia, regardless of what state the truck is registered in. Conversely, all vehicles weighing less than 26,000 pounds that travel on I-81 and are licensed in other states pay no registration fee to Virginia.
“Other than targeting the trucking industry to pay 100 percent of the cost of improvements that will benefit all users of I-81, truck-only tolls will result in safety and congestion issues on local routes that trucks will divert to in order to avoid the tolls,” said Bennett. “Additionally, there will be an adverse economic impact for the I-81 corridor.”
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