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With infrastructure talks renewed, Rep. Ben Cline pitches funding for I-81

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Interstate 81 traffic in Roanoke County. Rural counties that border the I-81 corridor are balking at a change in state law that requires them to raise fuel taxes for I-81 improvements.

Rep. Ben Cline is pitching Interstate 81 as a highway in crucial need of federal funding to enhance safety and maintain its vital role in the economy.

President Donald Trump and Democratic congressional leaders met Tuesday and agreed to pursue a $2 trillion infrastructure plan to rebuild roads and bridges, provide clean water and expand broadband coverage. The following day, representatives jockeying for funding for projects in their home districts, including Cline, spoke before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

“Current conditions are not only a frustration, but a grave public safety concern,” Cline, R-Rockbridge, said about I-81. “People are dying on this road and the failure to keep America’s infrastructure up to par is costing lives.”

Infrastructure has been one of Trump’s favorite talking points, and Democratic leaders are hoping this is an opportune area for compromise. But a sticking point to advancing a major infrastructure bill will be how to pay for the projects.

The federal Highway Trust Fund distributes money to states for interstate projects, and that money mostly comes from the national gasoline tax. But the tax has remained at 18.3 cents a gallon since 1993; meanwhile, vehicles have become more energy-efficient and now include electric and hybrid vehicles. Consequently, the money generated has remained relatively flat.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Tuesday that any increase in the gas tax should be tied to rolling back some of the 2017 tax code overhaul benefiting the wealthy and corporations.

So while there has been little movement at the federal level to increase funding for the interstate system, pressure has grown at the state level, where money is spread thin for a multitude of infrastructure needs.

“While I believe that the states are best positioned to allocate resources for projects to repair and restore our roadways, we must ensure that they get the federal funding that is appropriate for these Federal Interstate highways,” Cline said.

The question of how to pay for highway upgrades had also stymied efforts for years in the Virginia General Assembly to establish a funding plan for I-81. This past session, 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 highway stretching 325 miles through Western Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley.

There are about 2,000 crashes each year on I-81, with about a quarter of them involving tractor-trailers. Nearly 12 million trucks travel I-81 each year, hauling freight valued at $312 billion. No other interstate in the commonwealth carries a heavier share of truck traffic.

“While Virginia has made significant efforts to fund improvements, additional options to direct federal resources toward I-81 should be on the table,” Cline said.

Cline, a former longtime member of the House of Delegates, has withheld his opinion on the state’s I-81 funding decision.

Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, who represents the district containing the southern section of I-81, praised the General Assembly for taking action and deferred to the legislature on what it viewed to be the best way to make progress at the state level.

“The Federal Government has an obligation to help maintain and improve the Interstate system,” Griffith said. “I look forward to working with Congressman Cline and my colleagues in the House of Representatives on an infrastructure plan which provides some money for I-81, the Coalfields Expressway, and I-73.”

State lawmakers have asked for federal dollars for I-81 for years. A common question among residents on I-81 has been: where is the federal government to help fix its interstate system?

“I’ve not heard anything about the federal highway department and how they can help fix I-81,” Todd Dodson, a former Botetourt County supervisor, told Cline last week at a town hall. “This is not just a Sixth District or state highway, it’s a national corridor the federal government has interest in maintaining the flow of goods through.”

He’s cautiously optimistic that Congress and the president can advance an infrastructure bill.

“Our highway system has been underfunded,” Cline told Dodson. “It’s something I think we can have agreement on in Congress if we move away from the mentality of ‘it’s my way or the highway.’ ”


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