Legislation for the Interstate 81 Corridor Improvement Plan is currently in deliberation to discuss improvements, including possible funding source options. Proposed improvements to the interstate include an added third lane in both directions to reduce the number of traffic incidents in the corridor.
State Sen. Mark Obenshain (R) and Del. Steve Landes (R), in conjunction with Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, created the legislation in 2017. The plan was approved in December 2017 by the Commonwealth Transportation Board, and multiple state agencies studied the interstate to locate areas of improvement and potential funding sources.
According to the Virginia Department of Transportation, the interstate has experienced a 12 percent increase in traffic around Harrisonburg and delays have increased by 55 percent in the last five years. The study also identified that in parts of the Shenandoah Valley, 20 to 30 percent of the total traffic volume consists of trucks. Obenshain considers himself personally invested in the implementation of the plan because of his own perilous experience on the interstate.
“It’s dangerous, and it’s unreliable,” Obenshain said. “I have personally been hit by a tractor trailer on Interstate 81, and only by the grace of God did I walk out of that crash alive. We thought we were going to die.”
VDOT studied various options for funding sources and ruled out a toll and pass combination as the best way to pay for the approximate $2 billion project. Tolls for heavy commercial vehicles as high as $50 and for cars as high as $25 were suggested to pay for the project, with an annual pass additionally presented for cars to obtain for unlimited use of the interstate.
The prospect of such tolls has created uneasiness among regular I-81 commuters, according to Obenshain. JMU political science major Ethan Gardner is one of many students who would be affected by changes, as I-81 is his only means of travel from JMU to his home in Northern Virginia.
“Generally any toll implementation would have a negative reaction among students,” Gardner said. “I wasn’t exactly a fan of the tolls, but I do recognize the need for improvements on 81. My general opinion is that I prefer a system in which they use a number of different measures to pay for it instead of one high toll or one high tax increase.”
According to Harrisonburg Public Works Director Tom Hartman, the concern with the interstate isn’t about congestion, but reliability. Without an accident on the road and besides heavy traffic, the road operates well.
“I think the recommendations for our area would provide some good,” Hartman said. “Long term, we would just continue to work with VDOT closely on our touchpoints, the offramps, the interchanges, to make sure that we’re operating as effectively and efficiently as we can with the new improvements in place. I think [the improvements] will work for the city.”
Unable to come to a consensus, legislators took the tolls and annual pass option out of the bill, and are now looking at alternatives. With many JMU students relying on I-81 for frequent travel, adjustments may need to be made if the legislation passes.
“I’m not giving up,” Obenshain said. “I don’t believe our team is going to give up. We’re coming back, and we’re going to come back with a better plan. I think it would be a positive improvement for everybody who lives, works, studies along the Interstate 81 corridor.”
Contact Kamryn Koch at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.