Virginia starts the process that could lead to tolls on Interstate 81

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A little more than six weeks after the signing of a bill regarding tolls on the Virginia portion of Interstate 81, the chief state transportation official addressed an audience and talked about the possibility of their implementation.  

The bill signed by Gov. Ralph Northam in early April targets the Virginia portion of interstate 81, which runs through the western part of the state, crossing into the commonwealth near Winchester, heading generally southwest through the Shenandoah Valley into Roanoke, and then dropping toward the Tennessee border and crossing in Bristol. Googling “Interstate 81 dangerous road” will provide many hits.

Interstate 81 carries 42% of all truck traffic through the state, according to the legislation, and its conditions mean it is not meeting “the needs of these communities due to the high volume of truck traffic on the corridor. Current statewide transportation revenues are not sufficient to implement necessary improvements to the Interstate 81 corridor.”

In a news report carried by The Bristol Herald Courier, Virginia state transportation secretary Shannon Valentine was quoted as saying that a study mandated by the new legislation on Interstate 81 will begin soon. Tolls dedicated to infrastructure work on the highway is a solution authorized by the bill, whose two Republican key sponsors in the Virginia Senate both represent districts where I-81 passes through.

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The bill is specifically targeted at Interstate 81; it is not part of some larger transportation package. And high-speed lanes and trucks would be shouldering the burden of any tolls. The evaluation study that is about to begin “shall not consider options that toll all users of Interstate 81 but may consider high occupancy toll lanes…and tolls hat are restricted to [heavy commercial vehicles],” according to the legislation.

However, it isn’t clear where high occupancy lanes might work on 81. The biggest city that 81 cuts through is Roanoke, and the Roanoke Metropolitan Statistical Area has a little more than 300,000 people in it. High occupancy lanes are almost exclusively found in more highly-populated metropolitan areas and operate during rush hours, inbound in the morning and outbound in the evening.  This data about Roanoke’s rush hour does not indicate a traffic-snarled mess.

“It is very specific in tolling either hot lanes, express lanes or a heavy commercial vehicle toll,” Ben Mannell, VDOT deputy director of planning was quoted as saying by the newspaper. The meeting where he and Valentine spoke was in Abingdon, near Bristol in the southwest part of the state.

Mannell also said: “The objective is to not toll commuters. They’ve also asked us to look at minimizing the impact to heavy commercial vehicles, if we did have a tolling scenario.” Given that an HOV lane would be unusual given the population centers 81 now passes through, and if you don’t toll commuters and want to “minimize the impact” to trucking, it isn’t clear what’s left to toll.

But Valentine was enthusiastic, according to the newspaper report. “The exciting part would be, if we identify dedicated funding for 81, you open up so much more money for transportation priorities that are now the responsibility of the districts,” she was quoted as saying. “I think it could be transformative, so I am hoping we can identify a smart, plausible path forward.”

Another aspect of the legislation is that it doesn’t seek to stick a toll on the entire road, which runs more than 520 miles through the state, easily the most miles of any state in its New York to Tennessee routing. The Interstate 81 Corridor Improvement Plan, which is the target of the study, would be expected to “designate specific segments in the corridor for improvement and align such segments with a tolling location.”

The bill also calls for other things specifically related to trucking:

  • Any tolling policy should “minimize(s) the impact on local truck traffic.”
  • Take steps to stop the diversion of truck traffic on to alternate roads—for example, U.S. 11 runs parallel to 81 for many miles—by vehicles trying to get around the tolls.

 

  • “Determine solutions” to issues of truck parking.

The study is starting soon and is expected to be completed by the end of November, according to the newspaper report.