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March 29, 2019 5:30 PM, EDT

Gov. Ralph Northam’s I-81 Funding Fixes Eye Trucking Industry

I-81 Funding Traffic moves on I-81. (D. Alan Covey)

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s proposed fundraising tools for Interstate 81 improvements include the trucking industry shouldering a significant portion of the financial burden.

Northam proposed an increase in truck registration fees, a hike to the road and diesel tax rates and a regional fuel tax as means of generating funds for Virginia’s interstates, including $150 million for I-81. He made the announcement during remarks in Salem on March 28. Salem lies between Roanoke and I-81. A major freight corridor, I-81 runs through Virginia for 325 miles and usually is congested.

Northam presented these funding mechanisms as amendments to legislation that was revised Jan. 31 to omit plans for tolls along I-81. The legislation, adapted from Senate Bill 1716 and House Bill 2718, created the I-81 Corridor Improvement Fund, but did not propose a funding source.

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The proposal would increase registration fees for trucks with an 80,000-pound gross vehicle weight capacity from $16.60 to $23.35. The diesel tax rate (which includes the road tax) would be raised from 23.7 cents per gallon to 40.5 cents per gallon over the span of three years. The 2.1% regional fuel tax would apply to the planning district commissions that border I-81.

“I-81 has no dedicated funding source, and existing resources can’t support the improvements it needs,” Northam said. “Making these improvements will take money, and finding money requires us to make tough choices.”

Northam

Northam

The increase in truck registration fees is projected to raise $76 million. The tax hike is supposed to bring in $142 million. The regional fuel tax is anticipated to raise $60 million.

While I-81 would receive the largest portion of revenue (about $150 million), funds would be directed toward other interstates as well. Some $39 million would be distributed to I-95, $27 million to I-64, $20 million to the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority and $42 million to the Commonwealth Transportation Board for other interstate improvements.

Northam described I-81 as the “economic Main Street” of southwestern Virginia. More than 11 million trucks travel I-81 per year, hauling $312 billion in goods and facilitating 42% of the state’s interstate truck vehicle miles traveled.

Transportation Secretary Shannon Valentine, one of several officials who joined Northam at the ceremony, noted that the proposed increases to the registration fee and taxes would make Virginia’s rates more comparable with those of other states that border I-81. For example, the proposed diesel and road tax rate (40.5 cents per gallon over three years) is similar to that of Georgia (39.55 cents per gallon.) If enacted, it would pale in comparison with Pennsylvania’s rate (74.7 cents per gallon.)

“These amendments bring truck registration fees and diesel road taxes more in line with the averages among those states along the 81 corridor, which include Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, Tennessee and West Virginia,” Valentine said.

The Virginia Trucking Association supports the governor’s amendments. Although Dale Bennett, the association president, acknowledged that the proposal places a financial onus on truckers, he said it beats the initial plan for tolls.

I-81 Tolling

Bennett

“The proposed plan significantly impacts the trucking industry and our customers, but it is more efficient and less harmful than tolling existing highways,” Bennett said in a statement.

Northam said infrastructure improvements would increase the safety and reliability of I-81. He said widening and curve improvements will result in 450 fewer crashes and 6 million fewer hours of delay per year. Northam cited a Virginia Transportation Construction Alliance poll conducted last year in which more than half of the respondents said they do not feel safe on I-81.

One issue that bedevils passengers and freight haulers along I-81 is crashes that take a long time to clear. Lanes are closed off, which can result in long backlogs. The Commonwealth Transportation Board’s I-81 Corridor Improvement Plan notes that the route sees 45 crashes a year with clearance times greater than four hours.

“There is no question that the volume on I-81, with cars, trucks and campers, has increased significantly. That’s just a sign of the times,” Northam said. “Virginia’s growing, but if we’re going to be able to accommodate them, we need to be able to take care of our transportation and infrastructure.”