The Northern Virginia Daily's Political Depot

A service for our readers outside the Northern Shenandoah Valley... a sampling of The Daily's political coverage, plus unofficial, 'reporter's notebook' stuff. And occasional dry humor...

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Location: Strasburg, Virginia

Monday, February 06, 2006

Truckers join push for new I-81 plan; B1

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

Apparently truckers don’t like it either.

A valley-wide initiative to put a quick end to an effort to change Interstate 81 into a massive tollway picked up the backing of a major state industry group Friday.

The Virginia Trucking Association and American Trucking Association have thrown their support behind an effort begun by Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, which would put a halt to negotiations between STAR Solutions and the Virginia Department of Transportation to convert I-81 into a proposed $13 billion toll road.

Under the proposal from STAR Solutions, the contracting consortium seeking to build the highway improvements, it would cost trucks around $125 to make the trip from West Virginia to Tennessee, according to the groups.

“These legislators are trying to apply common sense to a process that has gone on too long and has done nothing to actually improve I-81,” says Dale Bennett, executive director of the Virginia Trucking Association, in a statement issued to media.

Gilbert, Del. Beverly Sherwood, R-Winchester, and other backers “understand the needs of I-81, the citizens understand the needs of I-81, and the businesses along I-81 understand the needs — and they aren’t truck lanes with tolls,” he says.

Gilbert’s resolution would shepherd VDOT toward adding a third lane in both directions to the highway, using a $100 million-plus federal set-aside to help pay for it. The legislative package also includes placing more state troopers on the highway.

Big rig drivers would welcome more troopers on the 323 miles of highway from Bristol to Winchester, according to Bennett.

“Truckers are just as concerned about interstate safety as a motorist in a car,” said Bennett. “We support any effort to crack down on unsafe drivers, whether they are in a passenger vehicle or in the cab of a truck.”

Other transportation initiatives in the House of Delegates are drawing political fire.
House Speaker Bill Howell, R- R-Fredericksburg, and Del. Clay Athey, R-Front Royal, announced more of the House GOP caucus’ transportation plan on Thursday.

But the package of bills, which focuses on changes to the Virginia Department of Transportation and local growth planning, is missing a key element, according to some Democrats and transportation interest groups — funding.

“Let’s be clear, House Republicans deserve credit and the package contains proposals of merit that deserve consideration and enactment,” the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance says in a position statement issued Friday.

But there’s no substitute for new money, according to the group.

“Let’s also be clear that these and other substantive VDOT reforms will not come close to substituting for the substantive, sustained new funding required to address an annual statewide transportation funding shortfall conservatively estimated at $2 billion,” the group says.

The leader of the state Democratic Party accused the GOP of playing politics with transportation.

“We don’t have a structural problem; we’ve got a funding problem,” said Richard Cranwell, the party’s chairman.

“You can’t run a car without gasoline, and you can’t build a transportation system to meet the needs of the 21st century without having a 21st century pocketbook,” he said.

Gov. Tim Kaine and a bipartisan group of senators have announced transportation plans that would generate on average of about $1 billion per year over the next four years for transportation.

Both use higher taxes and fees, as well as some money from the general fund, to pay the bills.

Writing a “blank check” to VDOT won’t fix the problem, Athey said. Instead, the House of Delegates wants to change the way the agency spends money — including outsourcing things such as interstate maintenance — before it talks about revenue.

House leaders have also said that there’s very little room for a tax hike in a budget that’s running some $860 million in the black this year alone.

But the partisan sniping in the General Assembly is a direct contrast to the rhetoric coming out of the executive branch.

Kaine, a Democrat, and Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling met this week and issued a joint statement pledging to work together to bridge their differences over where new transportation funding should come from.

House leaders are expected to tackle the money side of the equation next week.