WEYERS CAVE — Interstate 81 and Virginia’s aging population featured prominently in a question-and-answer session between Dels. Steve Landes, Ronnie Campbell and Tony Wilt and community members at the end of last Thursday’s 9th Annual Valley Business Summit.
“We’ll start with a topic that’s near and dear to all of our hearts, and that’s Intestate 81,” said Blue Ridge Community College President John Downey, who mediated the question-and-answer session.
A bill to fund improvements for I-81 recently passed in the General Assembly, and a committee met for the first time in Lexington on Aug. 13 to discuss upgrades to the highway system.
“We have a road forward,” said Wilt, who just finished his ninth term serving the 26th House District and is a member of the I-81 Committee. “It’s a problem we have all heard about year after year, and I’m not sure why it continues to get progressively worse on I-81.”
Wilt said the time had come for something to be done about I-81.
Funding is in place, and a game plan is prepared, but Wilt said the improvements will take time after environmental studies and much more is completed.
More electronic signage is all ready being used on the interstate to increase safety, according to Wilt.
Virginia Department of Transportation and Virginia State Police are involved in the process, and have designated certain areas as accident proned.
Campbell, who represents the 24th district, said that most of his constituents tell him “I don’t get on it” when I-81 is mentioned.
A retired Virginia State trooper, Campbell said that as a state trooper for 25 years he was called out to accidents on I-81, “and I have seen things out there that I felt like we needed to do something to stop it.”
“I didn’t see us ever getting a better deal than this,” said Campbell, “on the western side of the state.”
Campbell said some parts of the plan he does not like, but I-81 “is a unique problem for the state” and now “we have a plan. It may not be the best plan in the world, but at least we have a plan and we can move forward with I-81.”
“I’m glad we got something done,” said Landes, who has represented the 25th House District since 1996, lives in Weyers Cave and was a 1978 graduate of Buffalo Gap High School.
Landes said that I-81 is “an economic driver, if you will, for the western part of the state and for the mid-Atlantic.”
Improvements to I-81 will be ongoing, and the gas tax funding the improvements will not be “sustainable in this country” as a long-term funding option. Other funding must be explored.
“This was a win-win not only for those of us who live along I-81from the stand point of having something done, but, more importantly, it will benefit other interstates in the state [in obtaining funding],” Landes said.
Another question in the session was about concerns over resources in the future for Virginia’s aging population, a topic Landes has been involved with after his part in expanding Medicaid in the state.
“Can you comment about what is being done in the state for aging services and in anticipation of all of us getting older?” Downey said.
Landes said the General Assembly has been looking at the issue for about five years.
However, the challenge is that social security, assisted living space and other resources for an aging population are currently not structured for the long term.
“And the reason being, I say that at least while the Baby Boomer generation is participating in the services either of the age when they qualify for Medicaid or where they’re on Medicare, and the problem is for you younger generation out there, there are fewer of you than there are of us that are Baby Boomers,” Landes said.
Therefore, the not enough employees are paying into the system for the Baby Boomers, because the younger generation contains fewer members. The Baby Boomer generation’s parents had more children than the Baby Boomer generation.
Medicaid is 22 percent of the state’s budget. Long-term care comprises the most cost of Medicaid, and the state is all ready predicting a lack of skilled nurses for such care in the future.
“So those are the challenges. We know what they are,” Landes said.
Eventually, the federal government will have to deal with the issue, but “whatever it takes, there’s going to have to be some sacrifice.”
Either Baby Boomers will have to accept the fact of having fewer choices when it comes to services or retire later or the younger generation will have to pay more.