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Lawmakers consider ways to pay for fixes to congested Interstate 95 in Fredericksburg region

By SCOTT SHENK
The Free Lance-Star

A roundtable meeting between members of the Fredericksburg Regional Chamber of Commerce and high-ranking lawmakers in Washington took up the vexing issue of congestion on Interstate 95 and how to fix it.

While some ideas were floated there was no clear solution reached on the primary issue: how to pay for major transportation projects.The Thursday afternoon roundtable included Congressmen Rob Wittman and Dave Brat and U.S. Sen. Timothy Kaine. The meeting was livestreamed on Wittman’s congressional Facebook page.

Charlie McDaniel, a longtime Fredericksburg business owner and vocal critic of congestion problems in the region, got right to the point with the elected officials.

“The quality of life is terrible” because of traffic congestion in the Fredericksburg area, said McDaniel, chairman of Hilldrup, his family-owned, Stafford County-based moving and storage company. Then he asked why the congressmen and senator hadn’t fixed the floundering federal transportation trust fund.

The politicians didn’t touch that question. Instead, they talked about bills they said are bringing some “short-term” funding for transportation projects. But they also admitted that new, creative approaches are needed to address congestion issues, primarily the problems related to Interstate 95.

Wittman said he thought additional lanes should be added along I–95 to the Massaponax area, which is about four miles south of where the Rappahannock River crossing project will end. That project will add three collector–distributor lanes each way along the interstate, from the U.S. 17 area in Stafford to State Route 3 in Fredericksburg. The express lanes will be expanded from the North Stafford merge area and connect with the crossing lanes.

Original plans called for the express lanes to extend all the way to the Massaponax area. But toll revenue projections didn’t support having the express lanes go that far.

Fredericksburg transportation officials have noted potential congestion issues at the future merge area south of Route 3 where the crossing project lanes will end and traffic will be siphoned from six lanes back to three.

A project to add a fourth southbound lane to the Massaponax area is the top priority for the Fredericksburg Area Metropolitan Area Planning Organization.

FAMPO Administrator Paul Agnello mentioned that project at the roundtable meeting.

On the funding front, there was talk of trying to utilize a potential connection between the interstate and national security as a way to generate federal funding for work along the I–95 corridor.

Kaine said a key funding problem is the reliance on the gas tax, which he described as a “declining” revenue source. He said the best approach to transportation funding would be to diversify funding streams.

One possible funding mechanism, Kaine said, would be to create a national sales tax for online and “brick and mortar” businesses, with that revenue being dedicated to infrastructure projects nationwide. States and localities would have to give up such sales taxes but would benefit by the revenue since it would go toward transportation projects, he said.

The idea, which Kaine said he was “brainstorming” about, is tied to a 2013 transportation bill, one Kaine said he still supports.

The Marketplace Fairness Act was introduced as part of former governor Bob McDonnell’s 2013 transportation bill. The act would have used an online sales tax to help pay for the transportation bill, but it never passed. A wholesale gas tax increase was included as a fail-safe measure should the online tax fail to be approved, and that eventually kicked in.

During Thursday’s meeting the elected officials also pondered “user fees” as another possible route for funding. Such fees are based on how many miles a person drives.

Wittman said there seems to be an aversion by most people to user fees.

He, Kaine and Brat all agreed that there needs to be consensus on how to pay for transportation infrastructure.

Brat sounded a dire tone on that prospect, saying that the federal government’s budget “is a joke” twisted up in entitlement spending.

Wittman added that the president “is interested in infrastructure” and that he believed good things could come from Trump’s plan.

 

Scott Shenk: 540/374-5436

sshenk@freelancestar.com


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