The following op-ed was published in the Roanoke Times on Friday, June 7.

I-81 Needs Federal Funding to Complement State Investment

By Joyce Waugh, president and CEO, Roanoke Regional Chamber

Thursday, May 23 marked Virginia’s inaugural “Celebrate Transportation Day,” and this year, we have much to celebrate though the job is not yet finished.

A 2018 General Assembly resolution, patroned by Senator John Edwards and Delegate Chris Head, established this annual transportation celebration in Virginia. Recognizing the importance that a quality transportation network plays in our economy, the resolution reads:

WHEREAS, ease of transportation is a significant factor for people deciding where to live and raise a family, where to start a business, or where to travel for leisure; enhancing transportation assets boosts the economy in both the short term and the long term by creating jobs, increasing economic competitiveness, and improving quality of life.

This was the message we brought to the General Assembly in 2019 as we strongly and persistently advocated for I-81 improvements.Today, we celebrate transportation as Governor Northam visits Salem for a bill signing ceremony for the I-81 legislation.

After months of studying the unique challenges along I-81, developing targeted solutions to make the corridor safer and more reliable, and considering a variety of financing options, legislation was passed in April to fund the I-81 Corridor Improvement Plan.

The bipartisan package approved by the General Assembly includes a mix of statewide and regional funding measures that will generate approximately $150 million annually to support needed improvements to I-81.

This is worth celebrating – not only the legislation, but also the leaders in our community, broader region and in Richmond who made it happen.

To Governor Northam, Secretary Valentine, the legislators who patroned bills to improve I-81 (Delegates Austin and Landes and Senators Edwards, Carrico, Obenshain, and Hanger), and those who supported its passage – we thank you for making this issue a priority.

And thank you to Virginia’s Blue Ridge and our broader community, for your active engagement throughout the study and legislative process. Every call, meeting, email and letter made a difference, especially when it appeared the General Assembly session was going to end without a solution for I-81.

This year, we celebrate the leadership of our elected leaders, the advocacy of our business community, and the impact this investment will have on our region’s economic vitality.

Next, our goal is to celebrate a federal infrastructure package that complements the investment we’ve made at the state level.

The legislation passed this year will address $2.2 billion in improvements for I-81; however, the Commonwealth Transportation Board identified approximately $4 billion of needed improvements along Virginia’s 325 mile stretch of I-81 between Bristol and Winchester.

Federal funding is necessary to fully fund I-81 improvements.

The Roanoke Regional Chamber stands behind the group of legislators along the I-81 corridor who recently urged Senators Warner and Kaine and Representatives Griffith, Cline, and Wexton to help secure federal funding for I-81.

In a letter dated May 8, the legislators pointed to Virginia’s recent investment in I-81 and called on the federal government to share in the responsibility of funding outdated infrastructure, citing the interstate’s role in the “economic interest of the nation.”

The letter was co-signed by Virginia Delegates Austin, Landes, Wilt, Pillion, LaRock, Collins, Kilgore, Campbell, Rasoul, and Hurst and Senators Chafin, Carrico, Deeds, Hanger, Obenshain, and Edwards. We thank them for continuing to lead in I-81 advocacy.

The idea that potholes aren’t partisan has been around for a while. For years, bipartisan support for infrastructure investment has been steadily increasing, and leaders and voters in state houses and localities have been rolling up their sleeves, making tough, important choices, and rebuilding and modernizing transportation systems.

Our infrastructure doesn’t exist in isolation. Infrastructure – literally – unites the United States of America. No state, city, or county alone can tackle the enormous and growing backlog of projects of regional and national importance.

May 13-20, 2019 was Annual Infrastructure Week – a national week of advocacy and education that brings together business, labor, and elected leaders to spotlight the need to revitalize, modernize, and invest in infrastructure.

Improving I-81 is a priority for the Roanoke Regional Chamber. The corridor carries $312 billion in goods annually and connects 25 colleges and universities, 21 cities, and 13 counties. Investment in our transportation infrastructure is investment in economic opportunity and our region’s future.

In light of the recent Celebrate Transportation Day in Virginia and national Infrastructure Week, we applaud the leadership of the General Assembly in funding I-81 improvements, and we embrace the opportunity to continue transportation advocacy at the federal level.