A bipartisan group of 16 Virginia state legislators sent a letter to several members of the U.S. Congress requesting federal tax dollars to be allocated for improvements on Interstate 81.
Earlier this year, the state legislature passed a gas tax increase in five planning districts along the I-81 corridor to raise approximately $151 million in its first year. By 2022, the increase is expected to generate $280 million annually.
The new tax revenue will fund a multi-year highway improvement plan that costs the state about $2.2 billion. Despite securing the state funds, the authors of the letter said that the highway needs about $4 billion in funding to address all of its problems – not $2.2 billion.
Because I-81 is used frequently for interstate commerce, the authors argued that Congress should allocate federal funds to these projects in the interest of the national economy.
“While we have taken the first steps to address the dire need of safety improvements and congestion relief for Interstate 81, we are seeking federal assistance to help alleviate these problems,” Del. R. Steven Landes, R-Weyers Cave, said in a news release.
“A bipartisan group of Virginia’s Delegates and Senators have written to members of Virginia’s Congressional Delegation that represent the areas along the I-81 corridor to requesting that they secure funding for Interstate 81,” Landes said. “As noted, I-81 has become a dangerous road. The General Assembly has acted on I-81. It’s time for Congress to do the same.”
According to the letter, the interstate has become “notorious” for being unreliable and averages 45 accidents every year that cause delays of four hours or more. The legislators claim that its dangerous and unreliable nature has caused a loss of life, revenue and economic opportunity.
Lindsey LeGrand, a spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Transportation, said in an email that I-81 is vital to commerce in the northeast.
“As the backbone of our country’s east coast freight network, I-81 is vital to the efficient movement of goods in and out of the major northeast markets,” LeGrand said. “Federal funding helps the Commonwealth continue to support this critical transportation infrastructure asset.”
LeGrand said the state has demonstrated its commitment to improving the interstate and has now turned to the federal governent.
Chris Braunlich, president of the Virginia-based Thomas Jefferson Institute, said that the fairest approach to highway funding is to make the users of the highway pay for the bulk of the costs.
“A key principle of highway funding that should be employed is that, as often as possible, the user should pay and the General Assembly’s action follows that principle,” Braunlich said via email. “A long-term and fairer solution for federal funding would be to replace federal and state gas taxes (the effect of which is declining because of increased fuel efficiency) by moving toward mileage-based user fees. Until then, tolls providing direct revenue for use on I-81 would be a substitute.”
The state legislature considered tolls for funding improvement, but opted for the gas tax increase, instead.