Interstate 81, shown here from the northbound side in Montgomery County, just north of Exit 114, is getting an influx of state transportation funding from a deal that was among the most significant developments of the 2019 General Assembly session. (Mason Adams/ For the Virginia Mercury)

FLOYD — The saga of securing money to build out Interstate 81, which runs through rural western Virginia as one of the East Coast’s arterial commercial routes, was one of the twistiest narratives of the 2019 General Assembly session.

A pair of bills proposing tolls to fund interstate construction was blocked by the trucking industry, but Gov. Ralph Northam unexpectedly resurrected the legislation days before the April 3 veto session with amendments to generate $151 million for I-81, along with $40 million for I-95, $28 million for I-64, $20 million for the NVTA, and $43 million for other interstates.

As with Medicaid expansion last year, the I-81 legislation passed with Democratic support and enough Republicans to make majorities in both chambers. As a result, in what was a horrific session for Northam due to his blackface scandal, the governor still managed to pass a significant piece of transportation funding legislation — a goal that obsessed and eluded some of his predecessors.

“This was probably the most consequential legislation we passed this year,” said Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke. “How often do we actually raise gas taxes or do anything to improve our roads? How often does that happen? ’86 with [Gerald] Baliles, ’13 with [Bob] McDonnell, and now ’19 with Northam. It’s very unusual to have something of this magnitude to pass, especially when it failed in the session.”

State senators Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, and John Edwards, D-Roanoke, sit together during a committee meeting. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Northam’s amendments raised Virginia’s truck registration fees, and diesel and road tax rates to be more in line with those of other states along I-81. They also created a regional 2.1% increase in the fuel tax in localities along the I-81 corridor, similar to initiatives in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia that were part of the 2013 package.

The new plan will produce $826.8 million just for I-81 over the next six years, according to a presentation by Deputy Secretary of Transportation Nick Donohue to the Commonwealth Transportation Board on April 9.

How that money gets spent will be determined by the Interstate 81 Committee, which consists of 15 state and local elected officials along the I-81 corridor.

That committee will review and prioritize a series of projects named in a corridor improvement plan developed by the Office of Intermodal Planning and Investment and the Virginia Department of Transportation and released in December. The team that developed the list of projects in the plan applied elements of Virginia’s Smart Scale transportation funding process, but did not formally use the system due the narrower range of the I-81 projects.

The plan identified roughly $2 billion in improvements for I-81, with $285.2 million in the Bristol district, $875.3 million in the Salem district and $838.1 million in the Staunton district.

Instead of expanding the full length of the 325-mile interstate to three lanes, or creating separate truck lanes as envisioned in a failed 2003 plan, the plan instead calls for strategically placed improvements such as additional lanes in congested areas, truck climbing lanes on steep inclines, auxiliary lanes between closely placed exits, shoulder widening and curve improvements.

“Not all of 81 needs to be widened,” Edwards said. “Some places do, and some don’t. So VDOT is looking at hotspots.”

The 81 committee will hold regional public meetings this year before reporting back to the governor and General Assembly in December.

“The prioritized schedule for larger improvements will result from an ongoing conversation between the committee and the CTB,” wrote Assistant Secretary of Transportation Amy Wight in an email.

Additional operational improvements such as more law enforcement coverage, detour planning and towing contracts will begin in July.

I-81 sees more than 2,000 vehicle crashes each year, with one out of four wrecks involving heavy trucks. The interstate tends to have at least 45 major crashes each year that take more than four hours to clear.

In December, a snowstorm snarled traffic for some 18 hours and backed it up for 20 miles, the Bristol Herald Courier reported.

There’s still a gap between the money to be generated for I-81 and what VDOT says it needs to build out and maintain the interstate. So state lawmakers have requested more federal money from Virginia’s congressional delegation, even as President Donald Trump has held recent talks with Democratic congressional leaders about a long-promised, $2 trillion federal infrastructure package.

U.S. Rep. Ben Cline, R-6th, who, along with U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-9th, and U.S. Rep. Jennifer Wexton, D-10th, represents part of the I-81 corridor, testified before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee earlier this month to ask for interstate money.

“The state stepping up sends a good signal to the federal government that Virginia is serious about its infrastructure,” Cline said.

Cline’s ambitions for I-81 stretch beyond the “hotspots” targeted by VDOT; he wants the interstate to be expanded throughout Virginia.

U.S. Rep. Ben Cline, R-6th.

“I’ve always said ever since I was just starting out in the House of Delegates that I-81 was a critical issue,” Cline said. “It’s the economic backbone of the district and needs to be three lanes from Bristol to Winchester.”

Trump has been touting infrastructure since his 2016 campaign, but little has happened on the subject since he took office. Given his spotty history with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, both Democrats, it’s unclear whether their recent talks will lead to actual legislation. But Cline said he was hopeful for a bill “with several trillion dollars in new funding for infrastructure,” including for I-81.

If not, Cline said the reauthorization of highway infrastructure programs could provide another opportunity, especially if earmarks are brought back — a prospect that seems just as uncertain as the success of Trump’s infrastructure talks.

In the meantime, the legislation will begin the long process of upgrading I-81—a process that Edwards said is crucial not just for western Virginia but for commercial operations along the East Coast.

“Interstate 81 is important to the whole economy of the eastern seaboard,” Edwards said. “If you’re traveling up or down the coast, you’ve got to take 81 or 95, and most people prefer to take 81.”

The 10 biggest ticket items in the I-81 Corridor Improvement Plan:

  • $240 million: Harrisonburg/Rockingham County: Widen to three lanes from Exit 243 to Exit 248, both directions
  • $232.6 million: Roanoke/Roanoke County: Widen to three lanes between MM 144 and Exit 150, both directions
  • $231 million: Salem/Roanoke County: Widen to three lanes between Exit 137 and Exit 141, both directions
  • $201.2 million: Christiansburg/Montgomery County: Widen to three lanes from MM 116 to Exit 128, northbound
  • $186 million: Montgomery County/Roanoke County/Salem: Widen to three lanes from Exit 128 to Exit 137, northbound
  • $159.2 million: Winchester/Frederick County: Widen to three lanes between Exit 313 and Exit 317, both directions
  • $112.3 million: Staunton/Augusta County: Widen to three lanes between Exit 221 and Exit 225, both directions
  • $96.4 million: Weyers Cave/Augusta County: Add truck climbing lane, northbound
  • $95.1 million: Shenandoah County: Widen to three lanes, southbound
  • $69.8 million: Rockbridge County: Widen shoulder between MM 204 and MM 195, southbound (plus 2.8
    miles in northbound direction)