Transportation officials will spend the next several months honing a list of Interstate 81 improvements to tackle first following the passage of a funding plan from the General Assembly.
Gov. Ralph Northam appeared before the Commonwealth Transportation Board in Richmond on Tuesday, less than a week after the Virginia General Assembly approved his last-ditch amendments to begin funding more than $2 billion in improvements to I-81.
“We’ve got to keep up with our transportation and infrastructure investments,” Northam told the board, which heard from other state officials that work on some of the newly funded improvements that could start as soon as next year. Meanwhile, other previously funded widening work will start in the Roanoke Valley in 2021.
Northam signed the legislation that will generate $280 million annually, of which about $150 million will go toward I-81.
Revenue will come from increasing tractor-trailer registration fees and the diesel tax to 2.03% of the statewide average wholesale price per gallon. Additionally, in the localities that line the I-81 corridor, the regular gas and diesel tax paid would go up, with a 2.1% wholesale tax added.
The newly created Interstate 81 Committee will hold four public meetings this year at dates not yet determined and prioritize highway upgrades, such as widening sections of the highway, lengthening access ramps and installing message signs. The committee will give its recommendations to the Commonwealth Transportation Board, which has the final say.
“Ultimately some very tough discussions are going to need to take place at this body and with the 81 committee of which projects go first, which go second, and ultimately some will be later,” Nick Donohue, deputy secretary of transportation, told the board.
Currently, the revenue from the fee and tax increases that is going into the I-81 fund can only support the list of $2.2 billion of projects that the board has endorsed. The board can revisit the list in the future to add more projects as the initial projects get underway or if a new, critically needed project emerges.
The General Assembly will receive a report with updates on I-81 projects and funding each year. The first report is due Dec. 15.
Virginia Department of Transportation Commissioner Stephen Brich said discussions began immediately after the April 3 General Assembly session about projects from the endorsed list that could move forward quickly, hopefully by next year.
Meanwhile, other previously funded projects aimed at managing incidents on I-81 will roll out as early as this summer. Additional safety service patrols will hit the road to help stranded drivers, which should reduce incident duration times.
Later this fall, there are plans to have more traffic cameras installed to detect incidents faster.
“We’re not sitting back, waiting for the funds to arrive,” Brich said. “We’re leaning forward on this to make the improvements as fast as we can within the fiscal constraints provided.”
Other highway construction in the Roanoke Valley that will start soon is separate from this plan. A $62 million project will add an additional lane along northbound and southbound I-81 between exit 141 and exit 143 in Roanoke County, with construction to begin in 2021. This project is being funded through Smart Scale, a competitive program that scores locally submitted transportation projects seeking state funding.
By establishing the new funding system for I-81 upgrades, the highway no longer will have to seek Smart Scale money, allowing those funds to go toward other transportation projects.