Sunday, January 26, 2003
General Assembly ponders bills that would add tolls, increase fines for aggressive driving
Pending legislation could drive up cost of using Interstate 81
Lawmakers representing the I-81 corridor are sharply divided on various proposals that address traffic problems.
By KEVIN MILLER
THE ROANOKE TIMES
RICHMOND - Legislation making its way through the General Assembly could eventually pinch the wallets of motorists on Interstate 81 through tolls or significantly higher fines for speeding and aggressive driving.
At the same time, lawmakers representing the I-81 corridor near Roanoke are weighing in on two groups' proposals to widen the interstate, revealing a split between those who prefer separate car and truck lanes with trucks paying tolls and those who favor a less-costly plan that would charge tolls of all drivers.
With state revenues remaining weak this General Assembly session, the issue of improving I-81 has largely taken a back seat to talk of tax reform and additional cuts to state agencies. But several bills could affect I-81 drivers.
The first, sponsored by Sen. John Edwards of Roanoke, would allow the Virginia Department of Transportation commissioner to double fines for speeding, tailgating and other "aggressive driving" violations in stretches of interstate designated as "highway safety corridors."
While the bill (SB 1093) does not specifically mention I-81 or any other interstate, Edwards and administration officials said the intent is to deter aggressive and reckless driving on I-81, especially in the Roanoke and New River valleys.
As written, the bill sets the minimum fine at $250, although Senate committee members appeared inclined to cap penalties at $250 instead. Signs would warn motorists that they're entering a safety corridor, similar to the special zones set up to protect road construction crews.
Col. Gerald Massengill, superintendent of the Virginia State Police, said about 20 or more people have been killed on I-81 annually for the past several years, despite increased police presence. And because of the heavy truck traffic, wrecks on I-81 often involve more injuries than crashes elsewhere in the state, he said.
"This would be seen as another tool in our tool chest," Massengill said. "And maybe it would convince the public to slow down."
House Bill 2185, sponsored by Del. Chris Saxman, R-Staunton, authorizes toll collection on cars to help pay the costs of widening I-81. Two groups have submitted proposals under the state's Public-Private Transportation Act that would widen I-81 using money from tolls.
The first proposal - by a group of construction, engineering and financial companies calling themselves Star Solutions - would widen all 325 miles of I-81 to eight lanes and feature separate car and truck lanes. Star Solutions estimates it can widen all of I-81 by 2018. The group's lowest cost estimate is $6.25 billion, which would be paid in part by truck tolls and federal grants.
The second group, Fluor Virginia , predicts it can construct a third car lane in each direction in the highway median by 2011 for $1.8 billion or more. Because tolls would be collected from cars under Fluor's proposal, the group needs Saxman's bill to pass before the Commonwealth Transportation Board can consider the plan.
Both plans call for refurbishing rail lines in the corridor to divert some commercial freight from trucks to trains.
While VDOT will ultimately select the winning plan, lawmakers from the I-81 corridor are taking a keen interest in the proposals.
Del. Jim Shuler, D-Blacksburg, and Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta County, support the faster, less-costly Fluor plan, although both said they would prefer to somehow exempt local traffic on I-81 from tolls. Del. Dave Nutter, R-Christiansburg, also liked Fluor's time frame, although he did not commit to either of the two plans.
"The additional lane is doable," Hanger said. "It's something we can afford and do much more quickly rather than the other grandiose plan" from Star Solutions.
Del. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, strongly supports the Star Solutions plan, which he said plans for traffic growth better than the Fluor proposal. Griffith also worries that Virginia could lose federal transportation dollars for a pilot project on separating cars and trucks if Star Solutions is not selected.
"While I don't think Fluor's is a bad concept, I think there's a better concept on the table," said Griffith, the House majority leader.
Roanoke-area lawmakers are also divided on the issue of tolls. Griffith and Sen. Malfourd "Bo" Trumbo, R-Fincastle, said they would support tolls on cars, but Edwards and Del. Vic Thomas, both Roanoke Democrats, said they would not.
Edwards, Trumbo and Del. Clifton "Chip" Woodrum, D-Roanoke, deferred judgment on the best proposal to VDOT.
"The last thing we need to do is politicize the issue and have the General Assembly try to build the road," Woodrum said.