Tolling efforts advance in Virginia

| 2/24/2006

The Virginia Senate has approved a bill that would allow officials in Virginia and North Carolina to form a compact to collect tolls from all drivers on Interstates 85 and 95 near the states’ common border south of Richmond, VA. The effort is among several toll-related bills drawing consideration since the legislative session began last month.

Senators voted 37-2 to advance the tolling compact measure – SB614 – to the House for further consideration.

Each state could bring in nearly $100 million annually under the plan, The Associated Press reported. It would require revenue to be spent on work for the two interstates.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, is calling for $5 car tolls with a higher fee for large trucks.

If approved in both states, their transportation departments would study the toll proposal. It would need final approval from federal highway regulators.

So far, lawmakers in North Carolina haven’t shown much interest in adopting similar rules there. Gov. Mike Easley and the North Carolina Department of Transportation have yet to comment on the toll compact, saying it is a legislative decision.

A separate effort in Virginia would give the Commonwealth Transportation Board authority to impose tolls on all vehicles crossing the North Carolina-Chesapeake line on U.S. 17.

Sponsored by Delegate John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake, the border-tolling measure – HB133 – won passage before the full House earlier this month. It has been forwarded to the Senate Transportation Committee for further consideration.

Tolls would be used to pay for widening Dominion Boulevard in Chesapeake, replacing the two-lane Steel Bridge on U.S. 17, and improving the interchange at the Oak Grove Connector.

Depending on the type of bridge designed and the configuration of the interchanges, the price tag could be between $128 million and $210 million, The Virginian-Pilot reported.

Chesapeake and the Virginia Department of Transportation are preparing a toll study to determine toll amounts. Cosgrove’s bill, however, mandates large trucks pay a minimum of $3.

Another Wagner bill – SB720 – unanimously approved by the Senate would allow the state’s transportation board to impose tolls on state highways. Localities would have to agree to adding tolls.

Tolls could be imposed only on limited access highways, where users could not evade paying.

One other bill approved by the Senate would charge fees on all major bridges in Hampton Roads.

Sponsored by Sen. Marty Williams, R-Newport News, the bill would set up a regional bridge authority with the power to levy tolls to pay for roadwork and upgrades on seven major bridges and tunnels in the region and build a third crossing to connect the Peninsula with South Hampton Roads, the Daily Press reported.

The revenue would pay for improvements to those bridges, aimed at reducing traffic congestion either through widening lanes or adding additional tunnels on the most heavily used water crossings in the region.

The House has approved two other tolling initiatives.

A bill from Delegate Robert Marshall, R-Prince William, would allow adjoining counties, cities, and towns to enter into agreements for the construction and operation of highways, bridges, and ferries within their boundaries.

The measure – HB201 – would allow the localities to impose and collect tolls.

VDOT would get the final say on any project.

And a bill from Delegate Leo Wardrup Jr., R-Virginia Beach, would permit private groups to improve existing roads or build new ones and then charge tolls to recover costs.

Unanimously approved by the House earlier this month, Wardrup’s bill would amend existing public-private partnership laws by making certain that companies collecting tolls also maintain and improve the roads they control.

Wagner’s state highway tolling bill – SB720 – and Williams’ bill – SB192 – are in the House Transportation Committee. Marshall’s bill – HB201 – and Wardrup’s bill – HB1426 – are in the Senate Transportation Committee.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor