A bill that would nix any future tolls on Interstate 81 unless specifically authorized by the General Assembly is headed to the Senate floor next week with bipartisan support.
Senate Bill 754 cleared the Senate Transportation Committee on a 14-1 vote Thursday and appears to be on its way toward passage, said Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, the bill's chief patron.
The bill had been opposed by senators from Northern Virginia, but their concerns evaporated when the bill was re-worked so as not to interfere with proposals to add high occupancy-toll lanes to the Capital Beltway.
"Really, we were successful in defusing the opposition that appeared last week," Obenshain said.
Proposals to expand I-81 — and pay for the work with tolls — have been flying around since 2002, when construction consortium STAR Solutions and other contractors proposed building a multibillion-dollar, multi-lane expansion of the highway in a public-private partnership with the state.
The biggest player in the proposal pulled out of negotiations with the state in early January, though, effectively killing the proposal in its current form.
But the Virginia Department of Transportation still has plans to widen the truck-choked highway. That's one reason something needed to be done, Obenshain said.
"The biggest problem is the perception and the belief that the project had somehow run away from the region and it was being driven by contractors and [VDOT]," he said.
"We had concerns about tolls being imposed on cars and trucks that were going to be anything but modest," he said. Under one incarnation, a round-trip from Winchester to Harrisonburg could have generated as much as $20 in tolls.
Tolls also could have driven cars and trucks off I-81 and onto U.S. 11. Residents are in favor of more tourism in the valley's towns, but "I don't necessarily think that was going to be achieved by running a long line of tractor-trailers through Woodstock, New Market and StephensCity," Obenshain said.
Similar legislation sponsored by Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, appears to be on its way to passage in the House of Delegates.
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