Drivers could be penalized for exiting I-81 to avoid proposed tolls

RICHMOND, Va. – It seems everyone agrees Interstate 81 needs improvement. The debate is about how to pay the billions of dollars to complete those improvements.

"Tolls are the worst, least desirable option for that,” said Stephanie Kane, with The Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates.

On Wednesday, Sen. Bill Carrico, from Grayson, and Delegate Terry Austin of Botetourt, joined other lawmakers in submitting two bills to impose tolls on Interstate 81’s entire 325-mile-stretch.

The initial toll would be set at 17 cents per mile for trucks and 11 cents for mile for other drivers. Those prices would be half-off at night.

Kane and the American Truckers Association argue that fee structures are discriminatory for out-of-state drivers.

“They are proposing a commuter pass that would only be $30 a year for automobiles, but when you look at the fact that then they are trying to charge trucks by mile and they are not allowing them to buy any fixed-rate pass, it really is no longer a user fee, and it is not fair for those vehicles that have to pay per mile when there is a fixed-rate pass option,” Kane said.

The American Trucking Association sent a letter to Gov. Ralph Northam, stating that not only are tolls "poor public policy ... but that they raise serious legal issues.”

Many argue rural roads would only worsen because drivers would avoid the tolls with alternate routes. To avoid that, legislators have talked about implementing a camera system that would track drivers who try to evade the tolls.

"Which raises a lot of privacy concerns, because who is to say why you got off the highway at what road you did ... and it's going to cost a lot of money to enforce that,” Kane said.

The Virginia Department of Transportation said the toll plazas would cost $43 million to build. They estimate the tolls would generate $150 million a year.

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