Signed bill provides layer of protection for Interstate 81 and is called victory for valley
Northern Virginia Daily
March 18, 2008
By Garren Shipley
A bill that would ban tolls on Interstate 81 without the General Assembly's assent has been signed into law by Democratic Gov. Timothy M. Kaine.
House Bill 1516, sponsored by Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, and Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, was signed last week. Starting July 1, no tolls can be imposed on the Bristol-to-Winchester highway unless the General Assembly specifically votes to do so.
Kaine's signature is an important victory for the Shenandoah Valley, Gilbert said Monday.
STAR Solutions, a private construction consortium, had been negotiating with the Virginia Department of Transportation for years on a public-private partnership that might in places have expanded the highway into an eight-lane truck tollway. "Their plans are now go-ing to have to in-volve the will of the people again," Gilbert said.
Kaine approv-al of the bill puts legislators back in charge of I-81's fate.
"The General Assembly's over-sight on I-81 tolls provides an opportunity for our local communities to work with our state legislators to make sure that plans for I-81 aren't in conflict with local land use plans," says Kim Sandum of Harrisonburg, executive director of the Rockingham County Community Alliance for Pres-ervation, in a press release.
Now, a four-lane superhighway expansion of the highway would require a massive check from the state or federal government, "a check that I don't think is going to be written anytime soon," Gilbert added.
VDOT argued against the bill during the legislative session, saying the measure would make it much more difficult to attract private capital to expand the road — a project that must be undertaken at some point.
No one is arguing that I-81 doesn't need some work, Gilbert said.
"There's no question in my mind that improvements need to be made to I-81," he said. Those improvement may even include "some expansion in the not too distant future."
Tolls would also hit residents hard in the wallet at time when many can least afford it.
"I have a lot of constituents who have to drive several hours a day to get to work just to make ends meet," he said. A toll as high as 17 cents per mile was proposed under some plans for road expansion, a $116 per week charge for a Harrisonburg-to-Winchester commuter.
Even so, "I'm not opposed to tolls," Gilbert said. "It's a model that's been tried successfully in a number of other states."
But "somebody has to be accountable for those decisions," he said.
The Virginia Supreme Court recently re-affirmed that, generally speaking, only bodies elected by the people have the power to impose taxes and fees.
"It is the representatives of the people who make decisions, and they are accountable to the people for the decisions they make," Gilbert said. "In VDOT you're talking about an unelected bureaucracy that would have essentially otherwise had unfettered authority to levy tolls, a power they no longer have."
An identical measure, Senate Bill 746, by Obenshain, is still on Kaine's desk awaiting action.
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