0907_dnr_Exit 247_1

Traffic flows under Interstate 81 Exit 247 in Harrisonburg.

Money generated by the Interstate 81 regional gas tax in counties the interstate doesn’t pass through no longer goes toward I-81 improvements.

Since July 1, that revenue has been redirected to the Virginia Department of Transportation district grant funding program that covers such localities, which include Page, Clarke, Highland and Bath counties, according to a VDOT statement sent to the Daily News-Record this week.

The tax is assessed in nearly 40 localities, including all those in the Shenandoah Valley.

Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, who helped write the original I-81 improvements bill, said he was “delighted” to hear about the change, which he said will hopefully make a difference for the residents of localities I-81 does not cross.

“Page and similarly situated counties are small and the revenues generated in those counties is not going to make a huge difference to the fund created for I-81, and it will make a huge difference to the people of Page County and the people of other similarly situated counties,” Obenshain said of the funding being potentially redirected to more local infrastructure projects.

Obenshain’s proposed method of funding the improvements was a six-point electronic gantry toll system all along I-81 in Virginia that would scan license plates and allow one free trip back and forth through a gantry a day.

The purpose of the proposed method would be to collect money from interstate travelers more so than local drivers. Obenshain, like other Valley representatives, opposed the regional gas tax.

Another change that began July 1 to the I-81 funding system was to the tax rate. It is now indexed to annual inflation instead of the price of fuel, according to VDOT’s statement.

“I think given development earlier this year when oil future were essentially down at zero and before that it looked like a pretty good deal to index it to [the consumer price index] rather than gas prices, but now gas prices have gone up,” Obenshain said. “We just have to pick something and stick with it.”

The senator also reiterated his concern about the gas tax as a means to fund infrastructure projects as more cars use less gasoline or alternative fuels.

“We’re going to have to take a good hard look at how we fund our road construction, and that was a part of my concern about basing the I-81 fund on a gas tax,” Obenshain said.

Though there was up to a 64% drop in traffic of all vehicle types on Virginia roadways at the beginning of the pandemic, the I-81 fund remained relatively stable and even finished fiscal year 2020 on June 30 having generated $69.8 million — nearly $15 million more than the year’s estimate, according to VDOT data.

The regional gas tax has brought in about $6.7 million a month, with the lowest revenue generated in a month being $5.7 million in June, according to VDOT’s data.

However, statewide, the drop in travel contributed to a $120 million shortfall in VDOT’s anticipated revenue collection in fiscal year 2020 alone, with other projected revenue seeing significant declines, according to the VDOT statement.

Gov. Ralph Northam’s office has proposed budget amendments to keep VDOT projects going, as well leverage new funding from the omnibus transportation bill and keep avenues open for the rail initiative.

Contact Ian Munro at 574-6278 or imunro@dnronline.com. Follow Ian on Twitter @iamIanMunro

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