Northam announces amendment to fund $2 billion I-81 improvement plan

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SALEM, Va. (WDBJ7) -- Governor Northam has announced a plan that would generate more than $150 million dollars a year for improvements to Interstate 81.

Trucks would provide most of the funding through a mix of taxes
and fees, but everyone in the region would pay a few cents more for each gallon of gas.

"We cannot sit back and let the problems continue," Northam said Thursday morning.

He made the announcement outside the Virginia Department of Transportation Traffic Operations Center near Salem, as trucks rolled by on the Interstate below.

His amendment to recent I-81 legislation would dedicate $151 million a year toward the $2 billion of improvements the Commonwealth Transportation Board identified in December.

"Most importantly, this will improve safety and reliability on I-81," Northam said. "We'll be making an historic investment in the economic competitiveness of this vital region of our beautiful Commonwealth."

The trucking industry will shoulder most of the burden, through increased registration fees, higher diesel fuel and road taxes.

But all drivers along the I-81 corridor will contribute with a 2.1% increase in the regional motor fuels tax.

"Good compromise proposal," said Senator Creigh Deeds (D-Bath County). "It's across the board, equally fair, equally unfair to a lot of people."

"Most importantly it dedicates a continuing revenue stream dedicated for I-81 that will allow us to continue to make improvements as improvements are needed," said Delegate Terry Austin (R-Botetourt County).

And unlike an earlier plan that included tolls, the new proposal has support from the state's trucking industry.

Dale Bennett is President of the Virginia Trucking Association.

"While trucking will be paying a significant share of this new revenue," he said, "other users of the system who will benefit will be contributing as well."

This isn't a done deal. Lawmakers must approve the compromise during the veto session next Wednesday. And some fear the Speaker of the House won't allow the issue to come up for a vote.

So we still have a few more miles to travel, before we know if the I-81 improvement plan will move forward this year.

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Governor Ralph Northam announced on Thursday an amendment that would ensure a $2 billion I-81 improvement plan.

In a news release, Northam said the plan would establish dedicated funding for I-81 and Virginia's other interstates including I-95, I-64 and the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA).

“This year I worked closely with Democratic and Republican legislators to reach a long-term agreement that would address the critical safety and reliability issues along the I-81 corridor and make historic investments in the economic competitiveness of this vital region of the Commonwealth,” Governor Northam said. “We can’t wait another year to find a solution—I am pleased to offer amendments that will establish dedicated funding sources to support improvements that will lead to a major reduction in crashes and travel delays.”

Northam made the announcement Thursday morning at the Virginia Department of Transportation Traffic Operations Center in Salem.

Senate Bill 1716, introduced by Sen. Mark Obenshain and Bill Carrico, and House Bill 2718, introduced by Delegates Steve Landes and Terry Austin created the I-81 Corridor Improvement Fund, but didn't include any funding.

The governor's amendment calls for a mix of increases in fuel taxes and fees that would provide $151 million in dedicated funding for the Interstate 81 Corridor Improvement Plan. Lawmakers will consider the proposal next week when they meet in Richmond for the one-day veto session.

The announcement comes after a survey conducted by the Virginia Transportation Alliance last December found that residents were looking for immediate action on the safety and reliability issues along the corridor.