HARRISONBURG — Interstate 81 could be widened to three lanes in each direction through Harrisonburg under a state proposal seeking to identify solutions to traffic woes on the artery.
On Tuesday, after months of hearings and research, the Commonwealth Transportation Board approved its Interstate 81 corridor improvement plan, which includes expanding the interstate to three lanes between mile markers 243 and 248.
The plan will be presented to the state lawmakers for consideration when the General Assembly convenes the 2019 session in January.
Harrisonburg and Rockingham County officials spoke in favor of the plan’s recommendations.
“It’s the county’s view that any widening that would help local traffic passing through the area on I-81 would be an improvement,” said Rockingham County Administrator Stephen King.
The Board of Supervisors supports the work being done and the recommendations, King said, but there is concern about how the state plans to fund the improvements. He added that the supervisors as a group have not come out in favor of one funding method or another at this point.
A few of the main funding options being considered are increasing the fuel tax, increasing sales tax or taking the toll approach.
King said that the first two options put the burden of paying for improvements on everyone, whether or not they use the interstate, whereas the toll option puts the burden on interstate users.
Harrisonburg City Manager Eric Campbell echoed the sentiments voiced by King, saying that anything that can help alleviate congestion on I-81 for local drivers and drivers passing through the area is a good thing.
“In general, widening would enhance the highway just given the volume,” Campbell said. “Improving the flow of traffic would be an improvement for the city.”
The I-81 corridor improvement study was mandated under legislation sponsored by state Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham. The legislation directs the Commonwealth Transportation Board to study issues, determine solutions and consider financing options for the interstate.
The study was approved after more than 12 public hearings on the matter, five Commonwealth Transportation Board briefings and more than 2,000 comments received from the public.
The study focuses on top problem areas along the I-81 corridor, identification and possible solutions for each problem area, prioritization of potential solutions, and development of potential financing solutions.
Improvements to the Staunton district, which includes Rockingham County and Harrisonburg, include the widening of lanes between mile markers 243 and 248, between 221 and 225, between 296.7 and 300.1, and 313 and 317.
The recommendations also include adding a southbound auxiliary lane between exits 220 and 221, adding a northbound truck climbing lane between mile markers 234 and 237.9, and adding a southbound truck climbing lane between mile marker 238 and 235.6.
In total, the plan calls for 23 projects in the Staunton district, with an estimated cost of $838.1 million. They include 10 acceleration lane extensions, four deceleration lanes, one curve improvement and one shoulder widening project.
Proposed revenue sources include tolls and regional taxes.
State officials have said tolling heavy trucks would generate $50 million to $200 million a year, depending on the amount of the toll.
A regional 2.1 percent fuel tax would generate $60 million to $70 million a year, and a 0.7 percent sales tax would bring in $90 million to $100 million annually.
The toll option would include different rates for tractor-trailers than passenger vehicles. Tractor-trailers would be charged 15 cents per mile during daytime and 7.5 cents per mile during nighttime.
Passengers vehicles would be charged 7.5 cents per mile during daytime and 5 cents a mile during nighttime.
Passenger vehicle drivers may purchase a $30 annual pass for unlimited access.
All taxes or tolls must be approved by the General Assembly, and revenue could only be used to improve I-81.
VDOT held meetings to gather input on issues and possible solutions in June, August and October.
State officials have said delays on I-81 come from “incidents,” such as crashes or disabled vehicles, of which about 1,259 occur per year.
Heavy and increasing tractor-trailer traffic also can lead to delays as trucks navigate inclines along the interstate’s route through Virginia.
VDOT officials say I-81 sees about 11.7 million trucks per year, significantly more than the 9 million that travel I-95 annually.