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State lawmakers urge Virginia's congressional delegation to secure funding for I-81

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Interstate 81 spans 325 miles through Western Virginia. Legislation proposes a highway-use fee for fuel efficient vehicles.

More than a dozen state lawmakers who represent portions of the Interstate 81 corridor have written Virginia’s congressional delegation this week urging members to secure federal funding to fix the highway.

While the Virginia General Assembly recently approved a plan to raise money for upgrades to the crash-plagued highway, the 16 state lawmakers said more funding is needed to make additional safety improvements not currently addressed by the plan.

“Unfortunately, this ’50s era highway has become notorious within Virginia for its unreliable nature,” the letter states. “It currently averages 45 accidents per year that cause delays of four hours or more. In short, Interstate 81 has become a dangerous and unreliable road that has caused unnecessary loss of life, revenue, and economic opportunity.”

State lawmakers have spent years trying to figure out how to fund I-81 upgrades. They’ve asked for federal funding for I-81 before, but have not been successful.

This winter, talks of putting tolls on I-81 or increasing the gas tax broke down, leading to no bills installing a funding mechanism passing the legislature. But a last-ditch proposal from Gov. Ralph Northam to increase tractor-trailer registration fees, statewide diesel tax, and regular gas and diesel tax in the corridors along I-81 passed the legislature last month.

The state plan will generate $280 million annually, of which about $150 million will go toward I-81. The Virginia Department of Transportation has identified $2 billion in improvements for the 325-mile highway.

“However, these fixes are not a panacea, and this is not solely a regional or statewide issue,” the letter states. “Our interstate highway system is by definition a national matter.”

The state lawmakers point out that VDOT has noted an additional $2 billion in upgrades that aren’t included in the current plan.

“While we have taken the first steps to address the dire need of safety improvements and congestion relief for Interstate 81, we are seeking federal assistance to help alleviate these problems,” Del. Steve Landes , R-Augusta, who sponsored the original legislation but did not vote for the final proposal Northam offered, said in a statement. “The General Assembly has acted on I-81. It’s time for Congress to do the same.”

Infrastructure talks have picked up again between President Donald Trump and Democratic congressional leaders. They’ve agreed to pursue a $2 trillion infrastructure plan to rebuild roads and bridges, provide clean water and expand broadband coverage. There’s no agreement on how to pay for it.

Last week, Rep. Ben Cline, R-Rockridge, who represents a district that includes I-81 from the Roanoke to Shenandoah valleys, pitched to a House committee I-81 as a highway in need of federal funding.

“Because Interstate 81 serves as a major east coast commerce corridor, we feel that this endeavor is in the best economic interest of the nation and therefore urge you to secure federal funding to subsidize these improvements,” the letter states.


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