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Interstate 81 needs a lot of work, and a commission calls for truck tolls to help finance it

Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves

A plan that calls for tolls to fund improvements on Interstate 81 in Virginia is expected to be delivered to the Virginia state legislature this month, with no certainty whether it will be enacted.

The toll proposal was part of a report called the I 81 Corridor Improvement Plan, a lengthy study that came out of action taken by the Virginia General Assembly. The report studies several different approaches to funding the massive improvements that are needed for that portion of Interstate 81 that is in Virginia, the state with the most miles (325) on the New York to Tennessee highway. The report concludes that a system of truck tolling combined with an automobile pass would fund the needed $2.2 billion in improvements, $200 million of which are operational and the balance defined as capital improvements.

“For a truck travelling the 325-mile corridor, a 15 cent per mile toll rate would equate to $48.75 during the daytime and (the) nighttime toll rate would equate to $24.38,” according to the report. The authors of the report then attempt to equate the toll to what truck drivers are paying in state diesel taxes now and what would be needed to fund the same amount as the proposed toll: “This tolling approach generates revenue equating to a statewide diesel tax of 11 percent compared to the current 6 percent – a 5 percent increase and the equivalent of 37 cents per gallon tax.”

Given how early in the game it is, the authors of the report are fairly specific about what they want to do with the money.  As the graphic below from the report shows, it already has identified numerous specific projects in the various districts along the route of the highway of all types – widening, truck climbing lanes, curve improvements and so on. That graphic in the report is followed by even more detail, giving specific locations and mileage lengths along the highway where these projects would go. Some are as cheap as less than $200,000 for a flashing chevron. Conversely, widening projects near Roanoke, Christiansburg and Harrisonburg are well in excess of $200 million each.

The tolling options studied by the commission included four categories of toll payers: trucks only; trucks and non-commuters; variable tolling between day and night for trucks and non-commuters; and variable tolling with an annual auto pass. That last option, favored by the commission “provides adequate revenues to finance the $2.2 billion package.” (A funding option of regional fuel and sales taxes was also considered.)

According to the report, the 15-cent per mile truck toll rate is less than four “peer” highways charge per mile: the West Virginia Turnpike (18 cents), the North Carolina Triangle Expressway (69 cents), the Pennsylvania Turnpike (22 cents) and I-95 through Maryland (73 cents).

The auto pass would be for all drivers who purchased one. If a car didn’t have one enabled in their  transponder like an E-Z Pass, or if they were recorded by cameras, they would pay the auto toll per mile rate, projected to be 7.5 cents in the day and 5 cents at night.

The plan also calls for bonds to be issued to fund the programs up front, with the revenue from the tolls used to retire the debt. Among other steps in the process, that’s where the Virginia General Assembly comes in: such bonds need to be approved by two-thirds of both houses of the state legislature.

The plan came under quick attack from the Reason Foundation, an arm of the libertarian Cato Institute. Reason’s lead transportation analyst, Robert Poole, produces a monthly report on transportation that is a must-read for an alternative view on the subjects of infrastructure.

The Reason Foundation and Poole have been strong advocates for public-private partnerships (P3) to construct infrastructure. In a P3, a private company receives a contract not just to build infrastructure like a road but also to maintain it for a certain number of years (in some cases as many as 20 or 30 years).

Opponents of P3 projects often cite the fact that nobody can borrow money cheaper to fund infrastructure than a government, so it’s best to keep it all in the government house. The opposing argument often focuses on the maintenance aspect; that a P3 project also includes with it the proviso that revenue from tolls or other funding sources will be paid out to the private entity to keep the project maintained or the P3 will lose those payments. That, according to 3P advocates, provides an incentive to keep roads in better shape than some of the jaw-rattling highways now under full government control.

In a piece written by Baruch Feigenbaum, the Reason Foundation argues that the I-81 plan is too little and contrasts poorly with work having been done in states like Georgia or North Carolina. “Virginia’s plan is a piecemeal approach,” Feigenbaum writes. “We don’t use a piecemeal approach in other areas of society. Imagine the road is a broken arm. Yet because it costs more money and more time to actually fix a broken arm, the doctor merely stabilizes the arm in a sling instead of setting the bone. Is that how anybody fixes a broken arm?”

He lists other complaints: the fact that the six toll stations (also known as gantries) would be located an average of 55 miles apart (with the shortest distance being 40 miles). This would  encourage drivers to get off the highway between gantries onto parallel roads like U.S. 11. (The commission report assumes there will be trucking restrictions on those parallel roads to discourage those activities but that they can be lifted when such a “relief valve” is needed.) Feigenbaum also says the toll rates, particularly for automobiles, are too low. “The best approach would be…(a) public-private partnership (P3) proposal to widen the roadway to eight lanes,” Feigenbaum writes.

That I-81 is in need of improvements is not an issue. The report contains numerous statistics, but one jumps out: throughout the nationwide interstate system, 16 percent of delays are caused by “incidents,” like an accident. But on I-81, that number soars to 51 percent. One possible reason cited by the report is the rolling terrain of the highway, which “causes significant degradation in speed and performance along the corridor, and the impact is particularly borne by trucks. From a traffic flow and congestion standpoint, when truck percentage and terrain are considered, a single tractor-trailer truck accounts for the equivalent of as many as four passenger cars on certain segments of the corridor,” the report said.

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John Kingston

John has an almost 40-year career covering commodities, most of the time at S&P Global Platts. He created the Dated Brent benchmark, now the world’s most important crude oil marker. He was Director of Oil, Director of News, the editor in chief of Platts Oilgram News and the “talking head” for Platts on numerous media outlets, including CNBC, Fox Business and Canada’s BNN. He covered metals before joining Platts and then spent a year running Platts’ metals business as well. He was awarded the International Association of Energy Economics Award for Excellence in Written Journalism in 2015. In 2010, he won two Corporate Achievement Awards from McGraw-Hill, an extremely rare accomplishment, one for steering coverage of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster and the other for the launch of a public affairs television show, Platts Energy Week.