WINCHESTER — State transportation officials plan to recommend spending approximately $2 billion to fix problems along Interstate 81 and to finance the improvements with taxes and tolls.
The Office of Intermodal Planning and Investment, the Virginia Department of Transportation and the Department of Rail and Public Transportation are studying the entire length of the Interstate 81 corridor in the Virginia, as directed by the General Assembly. The study aims to identify changes along I-81 that will reduce traffic backups and crashes as well as find the funding to make those changes.
Plans were unveiled during a public meeting Wednesday night attended by about 75 people at Shenandoah University’s Brandt Student Center.
The $2 billion that the I-81 study team recommends spending would pay for 72 improvement projects along the corridor. Construction projects include widening portions of the interstate to three lanes, extending acceleration and deceleration lanes and widening shoulders. Other proposed solutions include installing cameras that could detect incidents faster and adding changeable message signs to inform motorists in real-time about traffic issues.
The suggested improvements for the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Staunton District, which includes the Winchester region, would cost an estimated $886 million.
Virginia Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine told the crowd at Shenandoah University that the improvements could be funded by tolls or by increases in retail sales tax, use taxes as well as regional gas taxes. The tolls would be collected without toll booths, as Valentine said there was concern that toll booths would increase traffic congestion.
The proposal is to toll trucks less than 17 cents per mile and toll other vehicles one-third to two-thirds of the truck toll rate. Tolls would be higher during the day and lower at night.
A proposed option for commuters would be an annual pass that would allow commuters to pay a fee for unlimited use of I-81. Those who do not have a pass or a transponder like E-ZPass could have their license plate recorded on video, and be subsequently mailed the toll charge.
The tolling annual revenue estimates are $135 million to $155 million.
The proposed 0.7 percent increase in retail sales and use taxes would generate $105 million a year and the proposed regional fuels tax increase of 2.1 percent would generate $60 million a year.
Ben Mannell, VDOT project manager in charge of the I-81 Corridor Improvement Plan, said the $2 billion invested in the 72 projects would generate almost $3.5 billion in additional economic output in Virginia.
Valentine said that investing $2 billion in capital improvements along the I-81 corridor would reduce annual vehicle hours of delay by more than 6 million. The projects would also reduce the number of crashes on the interstate by almost 450 a year.
Valentine said that the I-81 study team identified $4.2 billion worth of needed transportation improvements along the corridor, but the study team is only trying to get funding for the most critical improvements. According to Mannell, adding a third lane throughout the entire interstate would cost somewhere between $15 to $20 billion — a number the state could not realistically finance.
An average of 2,000 crashes occur each year on I-81 in Virginia, with 30 of them described as major crashes with clearance times of more than six hours. On the stretch of I-81 in Frederick County, there were 215 crashes in 2017, four of which resulted in six deaths, according to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. In 2016, there were 212 crashes that resulted in one traffic death. There have been 160 crashes on I-81 (and its ramps) to date this year in the county, with two deaths.
For more information on the I-81 study and to view drafts of the 72 recommended improvements, visit: ctb.virginia.gov/projects/major_projects/i-81_study.asp. The I-81 study group plans to make a recommendation to the Commonwealth Transportation Board at its Oct. 30 meeting.
The CTB will consider its final plan of action at its Dec. 5 meeting and submit the plan to the General Assembly no later than the first day of the 2019 session.
Public input is still being accepted. Those wanting to provide feedback can contact Ben Mannell, study manager, at VA81CorridorPlan@OIPI.Virginia.gov or by mail to 1401 E. Broad St., Richmond, Virginia 23219, or by phone at 804-786-2971. The comment period will end Nov. 30.