I-81 toll bill clears panel, would keep VDOT at bay
Gilbert's legislation seeks to give lawmakers final say
Northern Virginia Daily
February 6, 2008
By Garren Shipley
RICHMOND — A bill that would give the General Assembly the final say about tolls on Interstate 81 cleared a key committee in the House of Delegates on Tuesday.
House Bill 1516, sponsored by Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, was re-ported out of the House Transportation Committee on a 13-2 vote.
"The people are now back in charge," Gilbert said, following the vote.
As drawn, the bill adds a requirement to the state's Public Private Transportation Act that would make the Virginia De-partment of Transportation come back to the legislature for final approval before levying tolls on the highway.
Charging a toll — part of the recently collapsed plan by construction consortium STAR Solutions to expand the highway — would have a major effect on communities in the Shenandoah Valley.
"VDOT and the road builders, they build roads. That's their job. They do a good job of it. They're to be commended for that," Gilbert said. "But there's more involved in [fixing I-81] than building roads."
Expanding I-81 has the potential to "change the nature of western Virginia in major ways," he said, and the people need a seat at the table in the form of their elected legislators.
"There are many of us who think that traffic is going to get pushed off onto Route 11, Route 29," Gilbert said.
Tolls still could be a part of the highway's future.
"It may be that we have to have tolls on it at some point, and I may be one that gets to vote on it," Gilbert said. "We're just asking that the General Assembly be able to weigh in on it."
The bill isn't about "not in my back yard" concerns, he told Chairman Joe May, R-Leesburg. "I'm not trying to be an impediment to progress, Mr. Chairman. I mean it."
But Gilbert's bill might do just that, argued Richard L. Walton Jr., the chief of policy, planning and the environment for VDOT.
He suggested that legislators are giving the agency policy whiplash. Lawmakers voted to give the agency tolling authority on interstates just last year.
"I don't know what's happened between this year and last year to change policy," Walton said.
"Tolls is one of the most viable options that we're looking at [to fund the project]. The purpose and need of this project was to address safety and congestion," he said.
Something must be done about I-81, and soon, trucks or no trucks. Even if all the trucks were taken off the road, the highway would still need expansion in the next few decades.
And "30 years from now our children and grandchildren are going to ask why did we take this viable option off the table," Walton said.
The bill might "send a chilling message to our private partners who are putting PPTA proposals together."
Private companies "invest a lot of money up front" in projects like I-81, he said. "They could put all this effort into it, and the next year someone introduces a bill that you can't put tolls on it."
It now heads to the floor of the House for a final vote either late this week or early next week.
A Senate version of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, already has cleared the Senate Transportation Committee and is pending on the Senate floor. A final vote could come sometime this week.
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