WINCHESTER — Local Republican lawmakers expressed skepticism that raising the gas tax along the Interstate 81 corridor is the right solution to fixing problems with the highway to a meeting of the Winchester Frederick County Republican Women’s Club on Saturday.
Delegates Chris Collins, R-Frederick County, and Dave LaRock, R-Hamilton, explained their deliberations on Interstate 81 funding and other topics.
“The can for I-81 has been kicked around a lot,” Collins told the group at the Clarion Inn and Conference Center. “Everyone kind of came to tolling as the best of all bad ideas.”
Instituting tolls had the support of Republican legislators and Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, but the idea still failed during the General Assembly session held earlier this year.
The interstate hosts the most truck traffic of any road in Virginia and there are more than 2,000 crashes on the road each year with more than 25% involving heavy trucks, according to the Associated Press. About 45 major crashes a year take more than four hours to clear.
Collins said legislators did not feel they had enough information to move forward with a plan to impose tolls this year. For example, where would the tolls be? Exactly how much would they cost? None of these questions had definitive answers, so the funding plan was dropped and a commission was formed with the task of developing exact answers to these questions by the 2020 session.
But in late March Northam presented the legislature with an option to fund more than $2 billion worth of work with an increase in the regional gas tax as well as statewide increases in taxes on diesel fuel and truck registration. That option was supported by commercial shipping companies, all of which seemed to oppose tolls.
“I favored the tolling,” LaRock said at the meeting Saturday. “...a huge portion of the revenue would be from out-of-state drivers.” Also, he said he felt tolls would incentivize trucks to drive at night when the tolls would be less expensive and there would be fewer cars on the road.
Under the governor’s tax proposal, which passed the legislature last week during a special one-day session, all of the money will be raised in-state.
The plan calls for a 2.1 percent increase in the gas tax along I-81’s 325-mile corridor in western Virginia. The Associated Press reports that the increase will average about 7 cents per gallon on regular gasoline. The plan also increases tractor-trailer registration fees (proportional to the weight of a vehicle) and imposes a 2.03% tax hike on diesel fuel and the rate of road tax (a quarterly surcharge on the diesel tax on trucks weighing more than 26,000 pounds).
The gas tax will be implemented along the full length of I-81 in Virginia, including every locality in the VDOT Staunton District, which includes Frederick, Clarke, Warren and Shenandoah counties.
Neither Collins nor LaRock supported the tax proposal.
Collins said the language in the bill that passed doesn’t give an ironclad guarantee that the money collected will only be used for projects on I-81 itself. The money will go into the General Fund, where it is earmarked for I-81 but could ultimately be appropriated for projects “associated with” I-81.
In Frederick County, the improvements call for widening I-81 by one lane between exits 313 (Millwood Pike) and 317 (Martinsburg Pike), northbound and southbound.
Collins said he doesn’t think that is enough work dedicated to the region.
“Four miles of one lane,” he said. “That’s the project we get from all of this funding?”
LaRock agreed that the language in the bill makes it “subjective” as to which road projects get funding in years to come.