Inside the social media fight on proposed I-81 tolls

Inside the social media fight on proposed I-81 tolls
The view of Interstate 81 from exit 146 in the Hollins area of Roanoke County. The Roanoke Valley section of I-81 often sees congestion, both from trucks and commuter traffic. (Mason Adams/ For The Virginia Mercury).

The fiercest battle over the prospect of tolling on Interstate 81 in 2019 did not take place within the Virginia Capitol.

Sure, the debate within the General Assembly over how best to fund capital improvements on the 325-mile highway that sees 42 percent of statewide interstate truck traffic left a few bruises.

A plan to introduce tolls along the interstate — backed both by Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam and Republican lawmakers along the corridor — crashed amid disagreement over whether raising fuel taxes might be a better option. Instead, a bill creating a fund for the highway — with no revenue source and a study due at the end of the year — has advanced.

The debate in Richmond, however, looked positively collegial when compared to the public relations campaign being fought out on Facebook and Instagram. As traditional media has fragmented and more people are turning to social media for their news, interest groups are using those platforms to lobby Virginians on state policy issues like tolling on I-81.

Keep Tolls Off I-81, a Facebook page operated by the Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates, predicted on Jan. 10 that new tolls would undermine western Virginia’s economic development, raise freight costs throughout the commonwealth, “waste taxpayer dollars on new tolling bureaucracies” and “wreak havoc on communities” along 81.

Keep Tolls Off I-81’s Facebook presence looks weak, however, compared to Virginians for Better Transportation, which supports the tolling plan. As the public-relations wing of the Virginia Transportation Construction Alliance, a coalition of road-building companies, Virginians for Better Transportation played a big role in successfully advocating for the massive $3.5 billion transportation funding bill in 2013.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.