WINCHESTER — Gov. Ralph Northam on Thursday proposed increasing fuel taxes and higher truck registration fees to pay for $2 billion in improvements on heavily traveled, crash-plagued Interstate 81.
“We can’t wait another year to find a solution,” Northam stated in a news release.
His plan calls for a 2.1-percent increase in the motor fuels tax along the interstate’s 325-mile corridor in western Virginia. It also would increase statewide tractor-trailer registration fees (proportional to the weight of a vehicle), taxes on diesel fuel and the rate of road tax (a quarterly surcharge on the diesel tax on trucks weighing more than 26,000 pounds).
Northam held a press conference in Salem about his proposal, which amends Senate Bill 1716 and House Bill 2718 — legislation passed by the General Assembly to provide $151 million in dedicated funding for the Interstate 81 Corridor Improvement Plan.
The amendments would ensure the $2 billion I-81 plan approved by the Commonwealth Transportation Board in December 2018 is implemented.
Legislators will consider the amendments when the General Assembly reconvenes April 3 in Richmond.
A proposal to implement tolls to fund the I-81 improvements failed, despite bipartisan support.
In Frederick County, the I-81 plan includes widening the interstate by one lane — northbound and southbound — between exits 313 (Millwood Pike) and 317 (Martinsburg Pike).
Northam’s proposal aims to secure road funding this year.
The $151 million would be invested in I-81 annually, but other roads would receive funding as well.
“I-95 will receive $40 million, I-64 will receive $28 million, $20 million will go to the [Northern Virginia Transportation Authority], and $43 million is reserved for investment in other interstates as prioritized by the [Commonwealth Transportation Board],” the release states.
Virginia Deputy Secretary of Transportation Nick Donohue said in an email this could support bond payments to pay for the full $2 billion project. “The plan never called for providing all $2B upfront rather it assumed a dedicated funding stream that would be leveraged through bonds.”
The news release says the increase in registration fees and diesel and road use taxes will make Virginia “more in line” with the taxes charged in other states.
“Virginia today charges $7.30 per 1,000 pounds [for a registration fee] while other states on the corridor charge between $7.81 and $22.48, and the amendments would raise Virginia to $13.30,” Donohue said in his email. “At 80,000 pounds, Virginia today charges $16.60 while other states along the corridor charge between $15.10 and $28.86, and the amendments would raise Virginia to $23.35.”
Donahue said the diesel and road taxes “collectively will increase the effective diesel tax rate by 16.83 cents per gallon over a 3-year period.”
Del. Chris Collins, R-Frederick County, said in an email on Thursday that the “extremely short nature” of the proposal would make it difficult for elected officials to determine what impact the new taxes would have on different populations.
“The fuel tax increase is the most concerning for me as this will effect everyone in the I-81 corridor which will include counties and citizens who do not have ready access to the interstate,” Collins said. “I am sure as more information is provided, we will have a clearer picture to the benefit and problems this creates.”
Tolls were opposed by the trucking industry.
A Thursday news release from the Virginia Trucking Association called Northam’s amendments “more efficient and less harmful than tolling.”
The Richmond-based Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates said in a release on Thursday that its membership was glad Northam “abandoned” tolling as an option.
“By using methods of funding other than tolls, Governor Northam is recommending funding strategies that allow Virginia to maintain control of its implementation and enable more money to go toward improving interstates rather than wasting money on tolling bureaucracies,” spokeswoman Stephanie Kane said in an email.