Battlefields Foundation endorses Interstate 81 improvement legislation
Interstate 81 passes through seven major battlefields in the Valley, among them New Market, Fisher’s Hill, Cedar Creek, and Third Winchester, so discussions and legislation regarding the future of the interstate directly impact and greatly concern the Battlefields Foundation.
Changes to the interstate have the potential to dramatically affect not just the preservation and interpretation of the battlefields, but also their ability to draw tourists to the Valley. The battlefields draw hundreds of thousands of visitors to the region each year, making them huge economic assets.
“We really appreciate the effort that our legislators and Gov. Northam’s Department of Transportation put in to this plan,” said Keven M. Walker, Chief Executive officer of the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation (SVBF). “The legislation as proposed will address many of the problems drivers face on I-81, and improve driver safety, while causing the least negative impact on the Shenandoah Valley and its battlefields.”
On January 15th, Valley legislators introduced bills implementing the results of the Virginia Department of Transportation’s (VDOT’s) year-long I-81study. The two identical bills, House Bill 2718 and Senate Bill 1716, create the “Interstate 81 Corridor Improvement Program and Fund.”
The bills would authorize tolls on cars and trucks to raise money for the $2.2 billion list of I-81 improvements in Virginia. The bills set the toll for commercial trucks at 17 cents a mile and up to 11 cents a mile for everyone else. Tolls would be cut in half from the hours of 9:00 PM and 6:00 AM to encourage drives to shift their trips to times when the road is underutilized. Tolls would be collected electronically (no toll booths). An annual commuter pass will be available, not to exceed $32.45 annually. The legislation also blocks additional sales taxes or gas taxes in the corridor while tolls are in effect.
The bill creates a 13-member committee, made up of elected and appointed officials in the I-81 corridor, to guide project development and oversee possible toll increases in the future.
“This legislation includes many of the things we’ve been advocating for more than a decade,” said Walker. “Instead of unpopular wholesale widening, the legislation funds a list of targeted improvements, backed by safety data and public input. Plus, it requires consideration of environmental and historic resources when ranking projects.”
According to SVBF, the problems on I-81 are not simple, and workable solutions cannot be either. The legislation allows improvements to the I-81 corridor which includes parallel roads and rail. It also would fund operational improvements like speed enforcement and cracking down on distracted driving, clearing accidents more quickly, and using technology to alert drivers to upcoming problems.
“Tolls are always controversial,” Walker said. “But compared to the alternatives, tolls make the most sense. And the legislators have come up with a thoughtful forward-looking approach.”
One truck does the damage of 5,600 cars, according to the I-81 Corridor Improvement Plan, so it makes sense that trucks would pay a greater share. While all drivers pay for use of the highway, those who are the heaviest users and have the greatest impact pay more of the costs.
“There is definitely room for improvement” according to Walker. “For one, the solutions are overly reliant on asphalt, with more than 58 miles of new pavement in the VDOT Staunton District alone.” Walker added that the plan needs more flexibility for rail improvement (to get the long-haul trucks off the highway) and transit (like the popular new Virginia Breeze bus service).