Members of the I-81 Advisory Committee from across the Commonwealth gathered in Roanoke on July 7th to discuss the status of the I-81 Corridor Improvement Plan. The role of the Committee is to advise or make any recommendations to the Commonwealth Transportation Board regarding the Plan. The meeting was positive in that updates to Interstate-81, and other related modes of transportations along the corridor, are being completed on time and the projects have the necessary funding.
Regarding general business of the I-81 Advisory Committee, the meeting in Roanoke was attended by Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sheppard “Shep” Miller III, and his staff. Delegate Terry Austin (District 19) was elected the Chair of the committee while Delegate Tony Wilt (District 26) was elected Vice-Chair. Phil North, Chair of the VACo Transportation Steering Committee, also attended the meeting as a member of the I-81 Advisory Committee and Chair of the Roanoke Valley/Alleghany PDC. The committee will meet later this year at an undetermined date.
The success of Interstate-81 is critical to the success of western Virginia. I-81 is the main artery of transportation through this area and sees $312 billion in goods while also accounting for 42% of Virginia’s interstate truck vehicle miles traveled. To date, there have been 23 completed projects while there are currently 15 projects underway. The 15 projects currently being worked on include:
- Road widening (2 projects, scheduled completion date 2026)
- Acceleration and deceleration lane extensions (11 projects, 7 will be completed in 2022 while 4 more are to be finished in 2023)
- Additional truck climbing lane (1 to be completed in 2024)
- Auxiliary lane (1 to be completed in 2022)
In total there are, as of now, 26 remaining projects for the Plan and these are anticipated to be completed by 2033. Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) staff relayed to the Committee that operational improvements such as 30 digital messaging signs, 51 additional traffic cameras, extended safety services patrols, detour route improvements and improved incident clearance have all been completed in the VDOT system and that the locality systems should be completed in 2025. The full presentation on the I-81 Corridor Improvement Program Status may be accessed here.
The next topic of discussion was the I-81 Multimodal Improvement Plan which highlighted updates and information regarding Virginia Breeze. Virginia Breeze is the State-sponsored intercity bus service that runs 7 days a week, 365 days a year. It currently services two routes that use Interstate-81, the Blacksburg to Washington, D.C. route (Valley Flyer) and the Bristol to Washington, D.C. route (Highlands Rhythm). The Virginia Breeze is a low-cost mode of transportation to connect rural communities to other parts of the Commonwealth. Staff from the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) stated that the Virginia Breeze service performs very well. The Service has an 85% on time performance rate and a farebox recovery rate (% of cost covered by fares) of 52%. In comparison, the national average is somewhere between a 20-30% farebox recovery rate. DRPT staff went on to state that 110,000 rides have been serviced since December 2017 and the allowance of pre-booked tickets forewarns the Department in case they need to accommodate demand with added busses, such as around holidays. The full presentation on Virginia Breeze by DRPT may be found here.
The Virginia Passenger Rail Authority (VPRA) then spoke to the Committee on passenger rail updates. The $100 million in I-81 funding will be a critical part of the $300 million in western Virginia rail funding, which is part of the $3.7 billion rail deal signed in 2021 with CSX and Amtrak. This allows the second Roanoke Amtrak train to operate (The line began July 11th, 2022) and a 2026 extension of passenger rail to the New River Valley (NRV). Ridership on rail in Roanoke hit a record 220,000 passengers in 2019 while to date in 2022, we see similar ridership trends. With the extension of the route to the NRV, the VPRA expects 80,000 new rides a year from the New River Valley to D.C. The extension to the NRV will be through the purchase of 28 miles of track from Norfolk Southern which was finalized in June 2022. To read more on this and other rail updates, the full presentation can be found here.
The financial overview of the program was next on the agenda. After reviewing some history of the creation of funding opportunities for the Program, the general sense is that the Program is well funded and ahead of time for completion. New projections over the life of the program will cost $2.7 billion through 2033 which is slightly more than the initial estimate of $2.87 billion through 2038. All debt that is issued through the life of the Program (municipal bonds and Transportation Infrastructure Financing Innovation Act) will be supported by the I-81 Regional Fuels Tax. A breakdown of the program’s financial status can be found here.
Lastly, the Office of the Secretary of Transportation gave an update on the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and how it directly helps Virginia and Interstate-81. They made sure to state that the Youngkin Administration is committed to supporting applications for federal funding as they view this large amount of available funding as an opportunity to leverage Virginia’s resources. The Administration will provide technical assistance to localities or agencies in drafting competitive applications and provide letters of support for IIJA project applications. Of the $550 billion in new federal funding, Virginia will directly receive at least $10.5 billion over the course of FY 22-26, with opportunities for more funding through competitive grants. Interstate-81 will see funding directly from the IIJA for bridge rehabilitation and replacement in Botetourt County (I-81 over Route 640 and Route 670). Furthermore, the IIJA gives around $114 million in funding through the Interstate Operations and Enhancement Program that allows I-81 projects to advance sooner.
VACo staff were in attendance for the meeting and will provide further updates on the I-81 Improvement Plan as they become available. Meeting materials from the July 7th meeting may be found here. The entire recorded meeting and public comment section may be accessed here.