Governor Northam Blows Up the Narrative With I-81 Upgrade Plan

As the General Assembly prepared to argue about tax itemization, tax refunds, and windfall spending (while finding ways to avoid dealing with CPON reform), Governor Northam changed the subject in dramatic fashion with a proposal to use tolls on I-81 in order to fund upgrades to the interstate (Richmond Times-Dispatch).

Gov. Ralph Northam rolled out a bipartisan legislative proposal Tuesday that would add tolls to Interstate 81 to fund $2.2 billion in improvements to the western Virginia highway plagued by crashes, backups and heavy truck traffic.

Joined by almost a dozen Republican and Democratic lawmakers from the western part of the state, Northam said tolls would provide a dedicated funding stream that I-81 has lacked.

The money would be used to begin funding projects outlined in a Virginia Department of Transportation plan to improve traffic flow on I-81 by adding lanes, widening shoulders and improving curves. The plan also calls for operational upgrades to help get traffic moving again after a crash, such as additional traffic cameras and more signs to warn drivers of blockages.

The planned toll is 17 cents a mile, although it would be lower for regular commuters who use the highway. There would also be an annual fee for smaller cars, as well as some congestion pricing – or as they put it, discounts for low-traffic periods.

I will freely acknowledge my regional ignorance here – outside of a few months in Winchester, I have never lived more than 10 miles west of I-95. Those who do live in the western part of the state can more easily weigh in on how badly needed the proposed improvements would be. Ditto on the appropriate toll level.

I took note of a line in the second paragraph, “Republican and Democratic lawmakers from the western part of the state (one of the lawmakers – and the only one quoted in the article – was Senator Obenshain). This is arguably the first major initiative that doesn’t involve Northern Virginia or Hampton Roads in decades. Moreover, it brings the parties together (or at least their western leaders) just as they were about to go hammer and tongs over what to do with the recent revenue windfall will still roll on – including how to address the state’s tax itemization policy, which erodes expected federal tax cuts for thousands of Virginians by raising their state tax bills.

Those arguments will still happen, but whatever one’s views on taxes or on tolls, this announcement essentially takes the entire narrative on the GA session and explodes it.

Additionally, the Republicans’ plan to castigate Northam as a serial tax-hiker (already weak because of the Governor’s proposal to expand the state Low Income Credit) will likely be overshadowed by a major transportation effort focused on the western part of the state (with few, if any, swing districts that will be the focus of much attention during this election year) and supported by leaders in both parties.

Indeed, the biggest arguments in Richmond might not even be between the parties, but within them. Meaning the party more likely to gain seats in November (and control the legislature in January) will be the one more able to manage their internal disagreements.

As a Democrat, the last sentence leaves me optimistic.