PHOTO: Traffic backup on I-95

THE Interstate 81 tax hikes added as last-minute amendments to legislation by Gov. Ralph Northam and passed by the General Assembly during its one-day veto session on April 3 are expected to raise $280 million in annual revenue, or $2.8 billion over 10 years.

Besides establishing an Interstate 81 Corridor Improvement Fund to park the proceeds from new statewide truck registration fees, diesel and truck road taxes, and a regional gas tax in the I–81 corridor, the bill also sets up an Interstate Corridor 81 Improvement Plan to figure out exactly how to spend the new revenue.

Despite the fund’s name, just 41 percent of the new revenue will be used to pay for improvements on long-neglected I–81, a favorite route of long-haul truckers who will pay most of the new taxes. The rest of the money will be doled out for other interstate road projects in Virginia. That includes 17.9 percent for the I–95 corridor beyond Northern Virginia (which will be getting its own 9.1 percent infusion of cash from the deal).

The actual amount each interstate will wind up with will be “based upon total vehicle miles driven by vehicles classified as Class 6 or higher”—medium-duty trucks with a gross weight of more than 19,501 pounds.

Of course, trucking companies will pass on these costs to consumers in the form of higher shipping charges. So consumers/taxpayers will ultimately be paying the freight for improving I–81 and the other interstates.

According to an April 9 presentation to the Commonwealth Transportation Board by Deputy Transportation Secretary Nick Donohue, the I–95 corridor outside Northern Virginia will receive $18 million in fiscal 2020, followed by $26.9 million in 2021, and $39.5 million during each of the following four years. The total comes out to $202.9 million over the next six years—in addition to the $1 billion in projects that have already been approved in the Fredericksburg region.

At the CTB meeting, Transportation Secretary Shannon Valentine also announced the launch of an I–95 Corridor Improvement Plan, with the first public meeting to be held at James Monroe High School in the Fredericksburg District on May 9 to help determine where and how the additional funds should be spent.

Paul Agnello, administrator of the Fredericksburg Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, said that it’s still too early to tell how the extra funding will affect the Fredericksburg region. “This is great news, but we do not have much detail at this point beyond the governor’s announcement. We think we will have more info from the state at either the May 1st or May 20th FAMPO meetings,” he told The Free Lance–Star. “The state also just announced a major I–95 study that should help us.”

But why does the commonwealth need another study? FAMPO already commissioned a comprehensive study of the I–95 corridor by Michael Baker International. And the I–95 Phase 2 Corridor Study Final Report, which was released in December, made a number of primary recommendations that would be “critical to the operational success of the I–95 corridor in this study area by the year 2045.” They include:

  • A fourth northbound and southbound general-purpose lane between Exit 126 (Massaponax) and Exit 130 (State Route 3);
  • A fifth southbound deceleration lane for the I–95 off-ramp at Exit 126;
  • Ramp improvements at Exits 133 (U.S. 17) and Exit 136 (Centreport Parkway) and;
  • Widening I–95 northbound to four general-purpose lanes between the Truslow Road bridge (mile marker 134) and Exit 136.

The Baker study also found that if these improvements are not made, starting in 2023 congestion will merely shift south to a new chokepoint just north of Harrison Road at milepost 128.7 between Exit 130 and Exit 126, where six lanes will abruptly narrow to just three.

We don’t need another study to tell us that this will create a classic traffic bottleneck. All the new construction over the Rappahannock River, as welcome and long overdue as it is, will just wind up creating another congestion hotspot a few miles south unless I–95 is widened at least to Massaponax.

If nothing is done, according to the Baker study, that section of I–95—the most heavily travelled interstate highway in the nation—will fail by 2045. And if that section of I–95 fails, it will have serious repercussions all up and down the East Coast’s major arterial highway.

Of course, it’s going to take a lot more than $202.9 million to avert this predictable and preventable debacle. The estimated cost of just widening northbound and southbound I–95 between Exits 126 and 130 is about $1 billion. But directing all of the money from the I–81 tax package that is allocated for I–95 is a good place to start.