An op-ed by Joyce Waugh, President & CEO of the Roanoke Regional Chamber, was published in the Roanoke Times this week. The article outlined the significance of quality infrastructure, the current safety and reliability challenges on I-81, and proposals to fund improvements.

The text of the op-ed is below.

The Roanoke Regional Chamber’s roots in advocacy – specifically, transportation advocacy – date back to our founding in 1890, when a group of merchants banded together to improve roadways to City Market.

Then called the Merchant’s Association, this group recognized that shared challenges with road conditions were impeding everyone’s ability to sell goods. Through a collective voice, the Merchant’s Association was able to advocate for road improvements, thereby strengthening the overall business climate.

Fast forward to 2019, and the Roanoke Regional Chamber continues to advocate for road improvements, because transportation infrastructure and the ability to move goods and services is foundational to a strong business climate.

Interstate 81 is outdated, exceeding the capacity it was built for by 50 percent. The corridor carries $312 billion in goods annually, connects 30 colleges and universities, and winds through 21 cities and 13 counties. It is the artery of western Virginia.

Investment in our transportation infrastructure is investment in economic opportunity. 

Regular users of the corridor understand all-too-well the safety, reliability and congestion challenges we experience with I-81. Each year, there are more than 45 crashes that take longer than four hours to clear.

Data from the Virginia Department of Transportation show that I-81 has the highest proportion of incident related delay, compared to all other Virginia interstates. This means that dangerous accidents, not regular rush hour traffic, cause the majority of the backups on I-81.

These unique conditions are not conducive to economic growth and impede commerce

We are in the midst of an important opportunity to improve I-81. Governor Northam recently announced a proposal to fund improvements on I-81, a push that comes after a year-long study of the corridor’s most immediate needs.

As directed by the General Assembly, the Commonwealth Transportation Board adopted an I-81 Corridor Improvement Plan in December, 2018. This study identified the worst crash hotspots along I-81 and targeted solutions make to the corridor safer and more reliable.

For the Roanoke region, which has the highest crash density along I-81, transportation leaders recommend adding a third lane northbound between Christiansburg and Troutville and southbound between Troutville and Fort Lewis.

In addition to road projects, the I-81 Corridor Improvement Plan also includes incident management strategies, such as message signs and expanded safety patrols, in order to respond more efficiently when accidents occur.

Overall, the Plan identifies $2 billion worth of immediately necessary upgrades between Bristol and Winchester.  As part of the I-81 Corridor Improvement Plan, the Virginia Department of Transportation evaluated ways to pay for the recommended improvements.

Senators Mark Obenshain and Bill Carrico and Delegates Steve Landes and Terry Austin will sponsor a plan financed by tolls, with the option for an annual auto pass allowing unlimited use of the corridor. Revenues collected would only be used for improvements identified in the Interstate 81 Corridor Improvement Plan.

Other funding options for consideration are increases in regional sales and gas taxes in planning districts along I-81. At this early stage in the legislative process, all options are on the table.

For an interstate that costs approximately $10 million per mile in each direction to widen, the reality is that existing transportation revenue is not sufficient to meet current needs along I-81.

Other Virginia interstates, including I-64, I-66, and I-95, rely primarily on revenue collected locally for major projects. Regional funding dedicated to the I-81 corridor is necessary to implement meaningful upgrades to our transportation infrastructure.

Recent polling by Public Opinion Strategies demonstrates the broad public support for improving I-81. The analysis revealed that 88 percent of respondents support a $2 billion investment to improve I-81. Sixty-nine percent of voters agree that solutions should be approved in 2019.

Safety concerns on I-81 have been mounting for several years, and they will only continue to worsen if this issue is neglected any longer.

It is past time to address the severe challenges that I-81 presents so that businesses, commuters, students, visitors and residents can travel safely throughout Virginia’s Blue Ridge.

The Roanoke Regional Chamber is proud to serve as the voice of the business community and stand up for policies that will strengthen our broader business climate.

This General Assembly session, we are reminded of our 129 year history in transportation advocacy. Join us in support of this important issue by contacting your legislators today.