Valley groups support proposal to transfer I-81 tolls to I-95

Two local groups support decision of not tolling I-81

Proposal shifts focus to Interstate 95

By Preston Knight

May 13, 2010

NEW MARKET-A pair of local groups have offered their two cents on Gov. Bob McDonnell’s proposal to eye tolling on Interstate 95 instead of I-81.

The Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation and the Shenandoah Valley Network issued a joint news release Tuesday praising McDonnell’s announcement a day earlier that he was trying to remove the possibility of charging tolls on I-81 and switch authority for such a program to I-95.

As a result, the valley may be spared the threat of “massive” highway widening because such a move would make it almost impossible to raise the nearly $12 billion needed to enable the Virginia Department of Transportation to extend I-81 to eight to 12 lanes, the release states.

Beth Stern, the foundation’s director of policy and communications, said Wednesday that people in the Valley have wanted a “commen sense” solution to I-81’s problems, and McDonnell’s announcement might represent a shift in dialogue toward that.

Increasing the use of rail to move freight, making spot safety improvements and having in increased law enforcement presence on the highway are all part of the solution, she said.

“There is not one answer here,” Stern said.

In the release, foundation Executive Director Denman Zirkle said tolling facilities in the valley does not make sense because the interstate’s proximity to mountains, rivers and historic resources.

“So we are glad to see what appears to be the beginning of the end of those plans,” he said.

Kate Wofford, the network’s executive director, said the vast majority of people— 80 percent of than 2,600 written commends—were against tolling on I-81 during public hearings held in 2006.

Additionally, the plan to expand to as many as 12 lanes has been viewed as “overkill,” she said.

“We don’t need an $11.4 billion solution,” Wofford said.

McDonnell may have gotten that message Monday when he directed Secretary of Transportation Sean T. Connaughton to request that the Federal Highway Administration move toward tolling I-95 under the Interstate System Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program, according to a news release from the governor’s office. If $1 or $2 is charged per axle, the state would make 30 million to $60 million each year, with that money being put back into the I-95 corridor to make safety improvements, followed by pavement and infrastructure upgrades.

“This is a promising step toward a better solution,” Wofford said.

Federal officials granted Virginia the authority to levy tolls on I-81 as part of the planning process to fund widening all 325 miles of the interstate, Tuesday joint news release states, but state legislature passed a measure in 2007 requiring General Assembly approval before VDOT could toll I-81.