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, July 10, 2006

Goodlatte has doubts about I-81 truck tolls; B1

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

STRASBURG — One local congressman has serious doubts about financing Interstate 81 expansion with tolls on trucks.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-6th, told a meeting of business and community leaders on Monday that the plans on the table right now for the project might do more harm than good.

How to improve the roadway is “primarily a state decision,” he said, but one that will be made “with the federal government, and certainly your representatives in the federal government, wanting to help make sure it works.”

Like it or not, something will have to be done to help the four-lane highway carry more cars and trucks in the not-too-distant future, he said.

Rail improvements for the valley are being considered by Norfolk Southern, but it would take two new rail lines to make a serious impact on the way freight moves up the valley.

And that’s not in the fiscal cards.

“They’ve estimated it would be many billions of dollars” to lay the needed new track or sufficiently upgrade existing facilities, Goodlatte said. That means the highway will likely be carrying the bulk of freight through western Virginia.

State officials have recognized that fact, but the initial tolling proposal from STAR Solutions, a consortium of construction companies, doesn’t look very good.

“The plan the state is right now considering is one that is very concerning,” Goodlatte said.

“That’s because it relies on enormous tolls on trucks to pay for it. That is, in my opinion, way too expensive and way too risky for the economy of this region.”

Goodlatte said expansions are planned at the massive Wal-Mart distribution center south of Harrisonburg that will eventually put about 1,000 trucks per day on the road.

If each truck is required to pay an $80 toll to make it to its destination and back, it would cost the company an extra $80,000 a day, or as much as $29 million per year.

“Imagine what that does not just to distribution business, but the agriculture industry and all kinds of manufacturing facilities along that highway,” he said.

It could force business and industry out of the Shenandoah Valley and reverse a number of positive economic trends, he said.

“What I have said repeatedly to the last governor and the current governor is, ‘You can’t do this with just tolls. It’s not fair to the people of western Virginia,’” he said. “You’ve got to share those state highway funds.”

VDOT officials have said repeatedly they don’t yet have a funding mechanism in mind for the project. Planners have to decide just how much road to build, and where, before they can figure out how much it will cost and how to pay for it.

However, the agency’s 2003 application to the federal government for permission to collect tolls on the highway states that the project cannot be completed in a timely fashion without tolls.

Goodlatte acknowledged that the project’s final shape is far from set in stone.

“I think things are evolving, although they haven’t made any decision,” he said.
Congress has kicked in some serious cash to help pay for the project, but not as much as state and STAR Solutions officials were hoping for.

“We did get $141 million earmarked [in the last transportation spending bill], probably the largest earmark for western Virginia ever,” Goodlatte said “But they were hoping to get $800 [million] or $900 million.”

In the end, the eight- or 10-lane highway in some areas may have to be abandoned in favor of smaller proposals, like the one from Del. Todd Gil-bert, R-Woodstock, to build an additional lane in each direction and be done with it.

“I think those kinds of things have to be taken into account,” Goodlatte said.