Letter to Congressional Delegation, bills to limit trucks to right lane at places, and study truck tolls to raise money for improvements

Interstate 81 is getting a lot of attention in the General Assembly this session.

Two pieces of legislation have been introduced that deal with tractor-trailers, and a bipartisan group of state senators and House of Delegates members have written the Commonwealth’s Congressional Delegation asking for federal financial assistance for safety improvements and congestion relief.

Del. Chris Head (R-17th), a Botetourt resident, joined 16 other General Assembly members asking for federal help with I-81. Del. Terry Austin (R-19th), also a Botetourt resident, wasn’t able to sign the letter to the Congressional Delegation, but endorsed the idea from Texas where he was undergoing cancer surgery.

Congestion on I-81, a third lane, the truck weigh station, Exit 150, Exits 167/168 and challenges with accidents on the Buchanan area section of the interstate have been long-debated issues in Botetourt.

Similar issues plague communities along the entire corridor.

“The Roanoke Valley is a strong transportation and logistical hub in the Commonwealth, and improving Interstate 81 is vital to the area’s long-term economic health” Head said in a news release about his endorsement of getting federal help. “Today, a bipartisan group of Virginia’s delegates and senators have written to members of Virginia’s Congressional Delegation that represent the areas along the I-81 corridor to work with President Donald Trump’s Administration to secure funding for Interstate 81.”

The 16 other senators and delegates sent the letter to U.S. Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, as well as Congressmen Bob Goodlatte, Morgan Griffith and Barbara Comstock.

The letter asks for a response to this request, as well as a commitment to address this issue in Congress this year.

The letter notes that I-81 carries 42 percent of truck traffic statewide, and trucks comprise 20 to 30 percent of traffic volume on some sections.

The letter states that VDOT has identified 41 needed projects on I-81. “Unfortunately, due to a lack of adequate federal funding, these projects have not been brought to fruition,” the letter says. “Ultimately, these problems will not be resolved without addressing the need for an additional travel lane at important safety pinch points, a project the Commonwealth cannot afford without federal assistance.”

 

Legislation

This session, Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-25) introduced two bills that also address issues on I-81.

Senate Bill 561 directs the VDOT to conduct a pilot program establishing zones on Interstate 81 where tractor trucks would be required to travel in the right lane only.

Senate Bill 971 directs the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) to develop and adopt an Interstate 81 Corridor Improvement Plan and also to evaluate the feasibility of tolling heavy commercial vehicles to finance I-81 improvements. Sen. Bill Carrico Sr. (R-40) is a co-patron of this bill.

If approved, the pilot program under SB 561’s restricted truck zones would serve as substitutes for the construction of truck climbing lanes. Those designated zones on I-81 would have to be a minimum of three miles long and on a portion of the highway with an incline lasting at least one mile or in an area with at least five miles between exits. The zones would be clearly indicated by signs displaying the right lane restriction and the penalty for violation.

That bill is before the Senate Committee on Transportation.

SB 971 is much more comprehensive.

While the idea of studying truck tolls grabs the headlines, the legislation’s other directives could have a significant impact locally, depending on the results of the study if the legislation passes.

Besides studying how and where truck tolls might be implemented, the legislation directs the CTB to be sure a toll policy comes up with “incident management (wreck) strategies.” Those strategies would presumably cut down on the number and length of time that traffic is diverted off the interstate during a wreck.

The Town of Buchanan has had issues with I-81 wreck traffic for years because the section of I-81 around the town has a high rate of wrecks, sending thousands of cars and trucks through the town during those incidents.

The CTB is also directed to study truck travel patterns along the Interstate 81 corridor and develop a tolling policy that minimizes the impact on local truck traffic;

The study should also identify actions and policies that will be implemented to minimize the diversion of truck traffic from the Interstate 81 corridor, including the prohibition of through trucks on parallel routes.

The study should also determine potential solutions to address truck parking needs along I-81.

The meat of the proposed study is the directive that the CTB and Office of Intermodal Planning and Investment  develop and adopt a comprehensive Interstate 81 Corridor Improvement Plan that examines the entire length of Interstate 81 and would be financed with truck tolls.

The study would designate specific segments in the corridor for improvement and align those segments with a tolling location,

The study also would identify a targeted set of improvements for each segment that may be financed or funded through revenues generated by the expected tolls collected in each segment.

The legislation also directs that the study “ensure that in the overall plan of expenditure and distribution of toll revenues, each segment’s total long-term benefit will be approximately equal to the proportion of the total of the toll revenues collected that are attributable to the segment divided by the total of such toll revenues collected.”

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