Bumpy Road Ahead
Fate Of Funds For I-81, Other Roads Uncertain
Posted: January 7, 2013
When the Harrisonburg stretch of Interstate 81 was completed in the mid-1960s, it wasn’t unusual for someone looking out over road to go hours without seeing a car or truck. Times sure have changed. Now the highway has a steady stream of traffic and is often congested due in part to heavy use by tractor-trailers. Federal funding for I-81 and other highways in Virginia is uncertain, at best. (Photo by Nikki Fox)
But budget uncertainty on the federal level — caused largely by the still-unresolved spending and debt issues in Washington — may hamstring legislators at this year’s General Assembly session from finding solutions to problems plaguing Interstate 81 and the state’s other federally funded roads. The 2013 session starts Wednesday.
Improvements to interstates are supposed to be shared financially between federal and state government, said Del. Steve Landes, R-Weyers Cave. That doesn’t bode well for immediate help because, even with last week’s “fiscal cliff” pact, Congress and President Barack Obama have yet to resolve many of the issues related to the debt ceiling, taxes and spending cuts.
“One, they’re broke,” Landes said. “Two, they can’t balance their budget. Three, one body in the Congress [the Senate] hasn’t even had a budget in years. And four, they’re going to need to start making cuts before making an investment.”
Yet the General Assembly has its own transportation funding issues, and that will be a topic of discussion once the 45-day session convenes Wednesday.
Talks will include raising the state’s gas tax to make it a percentage-based tax, instead of the 17.5 cents per gallon it’s been since 1986.
Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Mount Solon, has supported the idea because it would provide the state some relief — $50 million for each penny the tax is increased — to account for more efficient vehicles, which use less fuel and, as a result, bring in less revenue.
Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, calls for wiser spending of tax revenue before trying to bring in more, while Landes would rather replace the tax altogether.
Additional sales tax revenues could be diverted from the general fund to transportation, Obenshain said. For the coming session, he is eyeing a constitutional amendment that would create a transportation fund lockbox.
“It is supposed to be a trust fund, solely for transportation,” Obenshain said. “Over history, we’ve raided it for other initiatives. … I think it’s time we lock it up.”
About five years ago, a big issue locally was the proposed widening of I-81 — all 325 miles of it that runs through Virginia. The idea garnered intense opposition from environmental groups and controversy surrounded the potential sources of funding for such an ambitious project. The Virginia Department of Transportation eventually ended discussions with developers.
Part of the plan included tolls on the interstate. The General Assembly later passed legislation — carried by Obenshain and Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock — requiring state approval before VDOT could impose tolls on I-81, which wasn’t completely finished until 1987.
But tolls on any interstate in Virginia could be problematic to I-81 because of unintended consequences, said Del. Tony Wilt, R-Broadway. For example, traffic could increase as motorists seek alternative, toll-free routes to travel, he said.
It’s a high volume of tractor-trailer traffic on I-81 that concerns transportation officials and lawmakers. Given the funding issues, however, spot improvements are the current remedy, as opposed to mass widening.
And they’re effective, to a point, said Wilt, who notes the recent construction of truck-climbing lanes in Rockbridge County.
“We can only do so much with the current funding that we have,” he said.
Landes said the addition of high-tension cable to the I-81 median through Harrisonburg’s stretch of the road has helped improve safety. That cost VDOT $2.4 million in 2010.
Landes said he can see Augusta and Rockingham counties also getting truck-climbing lanes because of how the hilly topography plays a factor in changing speeds and causing crashes.
The immediate prospects for them, though, are not good, he added. The lanes or any other major traffic improvement depend on solving a funding crisis, which is compounded by the fact that all 100 House of Delegates seats are up for re-election in November.
“[Transportation] is one of the dominant issues this year,” Obenshain said. “We need to move more money into it.”
Contact Preston Knight at 574-6272 or email@example.com