Terry Austin
19th District Delegate 

This past Wednesday the General Assembly reconvened for what is colloquially known as “Veto Session” in which both chambers voted on the Governor’s various amendments and vetoes for legislation passed in 2019. In this session of the nearly 40 bills that were sent back to the House and debated.

Importantly for our region, we had the opportunity to address both a safety and an economic issue in Interstate 81, a major commerce corridor within our Commonwealth. Forty-one percent of tractor-trailer traffic in Virginia travels along this 325-mile route and it is the lifeline for Virginia Tech, Radford, Carilion and numerous other colleges and businesses that surround it. However, this ’50s era highway has become unsafe and unreliable. It is a problem that currently causes unnecessary loss of life, time, and money.

Like many of you, I travel I-81 numerous times a month. Its deteriorating performance over the past decade has become increasingly difficult to ignore. In fact, it averages 2,000 crashes a year, with 45 of them causing delays of four hours or more. The traffic, topography and road design combine to create an environment that results in preventable accidents and traffic jams that result in needless death and a degradation of quality of life. As our economy continues to rely more heavily on time-based delivery, this dangerous and unreliable highway also has the ability to stifle business growth. By nature, major construction takes years to complete, and continuing to delay action would only serve to magnify these problems.

Though the House struggled to implement a funding solution during regular session, the amendments presented on April 3 provided a formula that, while not perfect, will provide the investment necessary for these crucial fixes along the interstate to begin. Over the past year, with input from the public and endorsement from the trucking industry, it was determined that the most palpable compromise consists of surcharge increases for regional fuel and statewide diesel as well as raising truck registration fees. These adjustments place the I-81 corridor on similar footing with the Northern Virginia and Tidewater regions that have for the past six years been able to implement necessary repairs to their transportation systems. It also positions Virginia to be more in line with the other states that I-81 runs through.

The current state of affairs meant that our region was reliant upon Smart Scale funding that is inadequate for the more than $2 billion necessary to improve I-81. Smart Scale, while a system devised with good intentions, has in reality left us at a disadvantage to those regions that voted for Governor McDonnell’s 2013 Transportation Bill. Because these regions voted to increase funding, they have been able to “buy down” the cost of Smart Scale projects, giving them the higher scores needed to be awarded the program’s funds – to our detriment.

Having this new, dedicated funding source will now give our region the opportunity to compete on a more level playing field across the Commonwealth. The upshot is this: if you live along the I-81 corridor, but do not use it often or at all, the Smart Scale funds that have been earmarked for major highway projects will now be freed up to fund the secondary road improvement projects that have thus far been neglected. As Interstate 81 improves, so too will your roads close to home.

Overall, this amendment package addresses the pressing issues mentioned above and acknowledges the fact that this is a statewide issue. It places all major commerce corridors on a proportional funding plan and relieves pressure from Smart Scale funding. It is often said that our region plays second fiddle to Northern Virginia and Tidewater. This funding bill illustrates how we can counteract this notion. Working together with other delegates and senators in the region provided us the opportunity to change the calculus enough to implement the fixes we so desperately need for our region to continue its evolution into an economic powerhouse. The nature of our demography and topography will only require more of this. You send us to Richmond not to say “no” to everything, but to get something done. No solution is ever perfect, but through collaboration and compromise, it is possible to see real results.

As part-time legislators we have returned from Richmond to our respective families, professions and civic responsibilities. However, this does not mean my duty serving you has stopped. As always, I value your feedback as it helps me do a better job of representing you. Should you have any questions or concerns I encourage you to contact my office at (540) 254-1500 or deltaustin@house.virginia.gov. should you have any questions or concerns.