WINCHESTER — State legislators on Wednesday approved raising gas taxes and other fees to pay for $2 billion in Interstate 81 improvements.
Del. Dave LaRock, R-Hamilton, Del. Chris Collins, R-Frederick County, and Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Upperville, voted against the measure. Del. Wendy Gooditis, D-Clarke County, voted in favor of it.
LaRock called the measure a “massive tax increase” that legislators had little time to review.
Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam announced the proposal last week as part of an amended bill. The plan calls for a 2.1% increase in the gas tax along I-81’s 325-mile corridor in western Virginia. It 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).
According to the Associated Press, the plan will raise gas prices along the I-81 corridor by about 7 cents a gallon. Proponents say the extra money raised will pay for urgently needed upgrades to the highway to improve safety and traffic flow. I-81 is a major artery that is vital to the state’s economy and heavily trafficked by tractor-trailers.
While legislators agree I-81 needs improvements, how to fund them has been a source of debate. Earlier this year, a plan to implement tolls on the roadway failed to pass the General Assembly.
On Wednesday, legislators reconvened in Richmond for a veto session and to consider amended bills, including the I-81 measure.
Vogel voiced her displeasure at the outcome. “I have worked hard to support [money] for 81 and a mechanism everyone could embrace,” she said in a message on Wednesday. “I did not support these amendments.”
The plan legislators approved dedicates the greatest amount of funding to I-81, but projects on interstates 95 and 64 also would receive funding, as well as the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority.
Gooditis said she supported the measure as a way to fund work on I-81 while also funding roads projects throughout the commonwealth.
“I am relieved and thankful that we can go forward with projects which are intended to save lives and boost economic development in the I-81 corridor,” Gooditis said in a message.
There are more than 2,000 crashes on the road each year, with more than a quarter involving heavy trucks, the AP reports. There are about 45 major crashes a year that take more than four hours to clear.
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.
LaRock said a lack of language in the legislation dedicating the new funds specifically for I-81 improvements invites the state to “misuse” the money.
Collins said he opposes gas tax money going into the state’s general fund with nothing to guarantee that it will be spent on I-81.
“It’s not really an Interstate 81 funding bill,” Collins said, explaining that the measure contains language that allows funds raised from the regional gas tax increase to go to projects “related” to I-81.
The executive branch decides if a project is related to I-81, he said, so there’s nothing stopping money from being spent on “a bridge over the Potomac River.”