Members of the I-81 Advisory Committee from across the Commonwealth gathered in Lexington on October 2 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 Lexington was attended by Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sheppard “Shep” Miller III, and his staff. Delegate Terry Austin (District 19) attended the meeting and is currently the Chair of the committee. Delegate Tony Wilt (District 26) who has been the Vice-Chair of the Committee, decided to yield that responsibility to Senator Creigh Deeds (District 25). Phil North, Chair of the VACo Transportation Steering Committee, also attended the meeting as a member of the I-81 Advisory Committee.
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. During the last meeting of the Committee on July 7, 2022, there were 23 completed projects with 15 projects underway. To date, there have been 34 completed projects with 6 projects currently being worked on, including:
- Road widening (3 projects, scheduled completion date 2026 and 2027)
- Additional truck climbing lane (3 projects, scheduled completion date in 2024 and 2025)
In total there are, as of now, 24 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 43 VDOT signal improvements are completed while 39 are under construction. In addition, 111 Locality single improvements are underway and will be completed by 2025. Lastly, 45 miles of extended safety service patrols and a 24% reduction in incidence clearance time are notable improvements along the corridor. The full presentation on the I-81 Corridor Improvement Program update 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 for FY 23 had a recovery rate (% of cost covered by fares) of 54% and DRPT staff projects continued growth in ridership over the next few years. The full presentation on Virginia Breeze by DRPT may be found here.
The financial overview of the I-81 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’s revenue continues to remain strong to support project delivery. New projections over the life of the current program will cost $3.1 billion through 2033 which is more than last year’s estimate of $2.7 billion through 2033. 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.
VDOT finance staff also give an extended financial outlook for the I-81 Program. Revenue streams as currently laid out for the Program are set in perpetuity. Because of this, VDOT financial staff states that nearly $1.9 billion in additional project costs can be supported through FY 2040, after the current Program completes in FY 2033.
The last update given to the Committee was on the feasibility of a Public-Private Partnership (P3) to accelerate I-81 project delivery. A “market sounding” process was initiated in January 2023 and six P3 developers responded. Five of the six firms stated P3 delivery was not a suitable solution. The consultants leading this P3 feasibility outreach assessed that while this is preliminary and high level, respondents say that capital expenditures could be significantly higher, revenues could be lower and this could lead to a larger public contribution toward the I-81 Corridor Improvement Plan. More information on this can be seen here.
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 October 2nd meeting may be found here and the I-81 Improvement Program website can be found here. The entire recorded meeting and public comment section may be accessed here.