HARRISONBURG — More than a month after asking their congressional delegation to fund Interstate 81 improvements, three Valley delegates called out the federal lawmakers Wednesday.
House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Mount Jackson, Del. Steve Landes, R-Weyers Cave, and Del. Dickie Bell, R-Staunton, decried the federal lawmakers’ “lackluster response” to their request.
In a letter dated Jan. 25, 17 delegates and senators — including Landes, Gilbert, Bell, Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, and Del. Tony Wilt, R-Broadway — wrote to U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, both Democrats, and Reps. Bob Goodlatte, R-Roanoke, Barbara Comstock, R-McLean, and Morgan Griffith, R-Christiansburg.
The letter asked them to work with the Trump administration to improve I-81. The Valley lawmakers said the interstate needed an additional travel lane “at important safety pinch points,” which would require federal funding.
In a letter dated Jan. 31, five area chambers of commerce joined the request for long-term solutions.
Goodlatte, Comstock and Griffith all responded.
Landes said Goodlatte’s response was “more detailed,” but he was less satisfied with the direction Comstock and Griffith took to address the issue.
The three federal representatives “indicated their support” for a grant Virginia submitted for the Infrastructure For Rebuilding America program, which provides funding for issues on highways and bridges, according to the release.
“However, this application was submitted last year, and we had hoped that our Congressional members would work with President Donald Trump’s Administration to explore new avenues of funding for Interstate 81,” according to the Wednesday press release.
Gilbert, Landes and Bell wrote that they were disappointed by the “unwillingness” of Comstock and Griffith “to pursue additional options” beyond the grant.
Comstock and Griffith did not return requests for comment late Wednesday.
Goodlatte said in his letter, dated Feb. 13, that “significant efforts” were needed to improve the 325 miles of I-81 that run through Virginia.
He noted Trump’s infrastructure proposal, which calls for $200 billion from Congress to generate $1.5 trillion in investment with state and private money.
As the proposal is considered in the House, Goodlatte wrote, he will evaluate options to support I-81 and be in contact with all levels of government, including members of the General Assembly.
Gilbert, Landes and Bell also wrote that Kaine and Warner did not respond to the original letter.
Members of Kaine’s staff sent the Daily News-Record a copy of Kaine’s response, dated Feb. 8, which was sent to the General Assembly. Landes said Kaine’s letter was not sent to the 17 legislators directly and that Wednesday was the first time he had seen it.
“We didn’t write to him as the General Assembly,” Landes said. “We wrote to him as individual legislators representing the I-81 corridor. It’s not really hard for a staff member to basically make a copy and email it to us or mail it to us, and they didn’t do either.”
Miryam Lipper, Kaine’s
spokeswoman, said in an email that her office is working with Gov. Ralph Northam to “offer a letter of support for their INFRA grant application.”
In his letter, Kaine wrote that he agrees that I-81 has “critical safety and maintenance needs.” Though Congress cannot earmark funding for specific state projects, he wrote, “I intend to evaluate an infrastructure bill with an eye toward how helpful it would be in dealing with transportation needs like those we have in Virginia, including on I-81.”
The nation must invest more in infrastructure,
Kaine wrote, and he is skeptical of any plan that “relies overwhelmingly on private sector and state and local funding sources without significant federal investment.” Such plans may lead to toll roads and pressure on state and local budgets, he wrote.
Landes said Kaine’s letter “doesn’t say anything,” namely whether he would support legislation that provides funding or backs Trump’s efforts.
“It’s just smoke and mirrors on the part of the federal government,” Landes said. “That’s why people are so fed up with our representatives at the federal level, and just another example of their ineptness and incompetence in my estimation.”
Warner did not respond to the original letter until Wednesday.
In his response, Warner wrote that he was interested in legislation introduced in the General Assembly that would study the feasibility of charging tolls on large trucks on the interstate.
He also wrote that Trump’s proposal would only provide federal funding for 20 percent of a project’s cost. He worries that would dump too much of a burden on states and localities.
When the Senate considers Trump’s proposal, Warner said he will work to change that, as well as push for federal investments into repairs and upgrades on the interstate.
On Wednesday, Warner also wrote a letter of support to the U.S. Department of Transportation for Virginia’s nearly $53 million INFRA grant request for I-81.
Landes, Gilbert and Bell once again called on the congressional delegation to work with Trump to secure I-81 funding to make the interstate safer and relieve congestion.
“The Virginia Department of Transportation has identified 41 projects along the Interstate 81 Corridor, which have been provided to the Congressional members representing those areas,” according to the letter. “With the Commonwealth of Virginia having laid out the groundwork, we believe it is incumbent upon Congress to provide the funding required to bring these projects to fruition.”
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