Tolling ‘an option’ to pay for Interstate 81 improvements

Virginia

After conducting a study on the Interstate 81 corridor, the Virginia Department of Transportation has identified 105 areas, which need improvements, totaling over $4 billion.

The department has prioritized the top 72 projects, following its October meetings. Planners estimate the projects will cost about $2 billion.

VDOT Assistant Director of Planning Ben Mannell said that $2 billion figure was a benchmark, resulting from the financing options his team was instructed to consider.

“The legislation asked us to specifically look at tolling of heavy commercial vehicles, as well as other financing options,” said Mannell.

Those options include a regional sales tax and tolling for non-commercial vehicles. Commercial vehicles would pay a toll of 17 cents per mile, while non-commercial vehicles would have a toll “a third to two thirds of the truck toll rate,” said Mannell.

Non-commercial drivers would have the option to get an annual pass for one flat fee, which Mannell says would likely cost between $20 to $30. The pass would work similar to an EZ-Pass and would allow drivers unlimited use, along the I-81 corridor.

Mannell says either of the proposed financing options, taxes or tolls, would raise about $150 million annually in revenue to pay for the improvements.

But not everyone is open to the idea of tolls on the interstate. 

Heather O’Brien, a Winchester resident, says she doesn’t drive on I-81 frequently, but she’s concerned about the cost of the tolls on people who drive on the roadway every day. 

“Traveling in every day and paying tolls must be terrifically difficult on people with young families,” she said. “Doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Others, like Scott Wisniewski, prefer paying tolls to a regional tax.

“You can just get the EZ-Pass and be done with it,” he said. 

Mannell says the improvements are needed to keep the roadway running smoothly.

“The biggest thing for us is that 81 is very unique among Virginia interstates in that it does not have a significant amount of recurring delay. Its’ delay is very much incident-based, which makes it highly unreliable,” said Mannell. “Through the work we’ve done and the upgrades we’ve identified, that we’ll be able to significantly address some of that non-recurring delay.”

The proposal still has a ways to go, but the Virginia General Assembly is expected to hear the proposal in early 2019. VDOT is accepting public comment until November 30.

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