WINCHESTER — A 2.1% increase in the state’s gasoline tax took effect July 1 in areas along the Interstate 81 corridor, including Winchester and Frederick County, to help fund $2 billion in improvements to the highway.
Yet the only improvements planned locally as a result of the increase are widening I-81 by one lane between exits 313 (Millwood Pike) and 317 (Martinsburg Pike), northbound and southbound, in the county.
According to a Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) news release, work currently is occurring between mile markers 312 and 313 in both directions. Overnight left lane closures as necessary to enable equipment to access the median from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m. weekdays through the summer of 2020. Left-side highway shoulders are closed around the clock, and the work zone speed limit 60 mph.
VDOT staff members could not be reached for comment on the project this week because of the holiday season.
Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam proposed the gas tax hike, which The Associated Press (AP) reported would raise gas prices by 7.6 cents per gallon along I-81’s entire 325-mile corridor through western Virginia.
The measure, designed to pay for about half of the I-81 improvements mentioned in a study, proved controversial along political party lines.
When it came before the General Assembly in April, Democratic Del. Wendy Gooditis of Clarke County was the only member of the area’s legislative delegation who voted in favor of the increase. Voting against it were Del. Dave LaRock, R-Hamilton; Del. Chris Collins, R-Frederick County; and state Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Upperville.
At the time, LaRock called it a “massive tax increase” that lawmakers had little time to consider.
Collins said “it’s not really an Interstate 81 funding bill” because it included language allowing funds from the tax hike to go toward projects “related” to I-81. Because the executive branch decides if a project is related to I-81, he said, there is nothing stopping money from being spent on “a bridge over the Potomac River.”
The legislation also increased tractor-trailer registration fees, which are proportional to a vehicle’s weight, and imposed a 7.7 cents-per-gallon 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).
I-81 is one of the busiest interstates in America. More than 2,000 crashes occur along the highway annually, including roughly 45 that take more than four hours to clear. Upwards of 25% of the wrecks involve heavy trucks, according to the AP.
The Virginia Petroleum and Convenience Marketers Association (VPCMA), a trade association representing gas stations and convenience stores, held a seminar in Winchester to help retailers get accustomed to procedures necessary to collect the tax.