Tolls recommended to finance $2 billion in I-81 safety, congestion improvements

It will likely take some sort of tolls to cover the cost of proposed $2 billion safety and congestion-relieving improvements on designated parts of the 325-mile Interstate 81 through Virginia.

That’s the recommendation that the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) will send to the General Assembly later this month following an I-81 Corridor Study it directed the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) to complete this year.

One aspect of the tolls that’s supposed to lighten the financial burden on local commuters and users is a proposed $30 annual fee for local commuters and users along the corridor. That fee would be the only toll the car would pay each calendar year.

Other tolls would be based on miles traveled, and whether the traveling was done during the day or night.

The $2 billion in work is about half of what VDOT and residents and business people along the corridor recommended during the study and a series of public meetings in the summer and early fall.

The CBT agreed to send the study and its recommendations to the General Assembly during its December meeting last week.

The study also recommends providing ways to keep traffic moving on parallel roads such as US 11 when there is an accident on I-81 that detours traffic off the interstate.

Communities all along the corridor are heavily impacted by those detours, including the Town of Buchanan, which sees regular detours because of a section of the interstate that has one of the one of the highest number of incident sections and longest interstate closure times— particularly northbound.

However, the recommendations do not include funding for making improvements to that northbound section between mile markers (MM) 165 and 169 under the proposed tolling mechanism for funding.

Improvements between MM 168 and 167 southbound are already in VDOT’s Six-Year Improvement Plan.

The study does recommend funding to extend the northbound acceleration lane at Exit 162 south of Buchanan, but not the northbound deceleration lane.

It also recommends funding for curve improvements northbound and southbound between MM 172 and 176 north of Buchanan at the Rockbridge County line.

Acceleration and deceleration lane extensions are also recommended at the Troutville Safety Rest Area at MM 158.

The study also recommends funding the widening of both southbound and northbound lanes of the interstate from MM 150 to MM 144 in Roanoke County. It also recommends funding the extension of the northbound acceleration lane at Exit 150.

One of the toll scenarios in the study would have a 7.5 cents a mile toll for cars during the day and a 5 cent per mile night time toll. An annual auto pass would cost $30 and avoid tolls.

Truck tolls were recommend at 15 cents per mile daytime and 7.5 cents per mile nighttime.

The study estimates the improvements to the interstate and the cost of tolls to the trucking industry will actually save the industry $1.1 billion over the 40 years included in the analysis. That’s because it would reduce truck hours of delay by 3.6 million vehicle hours annually.

The study also makes recommends establishing three task forces to address other issues besides capital projects.

Those are to establish an I-81 corridor truck parking task force, a speed enforcement task force and a multimodal options task force.

The recommendations include $43 million for operational improvements and $2 billion for capital improvements. This $2.04 billion is in addition to the $225 million in I-81 and US 11 improvements already funded in the current Six-Year Improvement Plan adopted by the CTB.

There’s still another $2 billion in proposed projects in the plan that would still need funding.

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