Virginia headed for special session; some tolling OK'd by lawmakers

| Monday, March 20, 2006

With House and Senate lawmakers unable to reach agreement on transportation funding, the Virginia General Assembly closed its regular 60-day session March 11 without agreeing on a budget.

In response, Gov. Tim Kaine ordered lawmakers back for a special session to begin Monday, March 27. At that time, legislators will take another crack at finalizing the state’s budget and the governor’s proposed transportation package.

The Senate favors a plan to give transportation $1 billion per year. The plan would impose higher fees for registering vehicles – particularly large trucks. It would also increase taxes on vehicle sales and on gasoline and diesel sales. The plan also would refund the payments of fuel taxes to those who save pump receipts for their personal vehicles.

Meanwhile, the House is opposed to tax increases and would rather use funds now earmarked for education, health and public safety to raise $500 million annually for transportation.

The governor said he would spend the two weeks leading up to the special session traveling throughout the state and scheduling more town meetings, The Virginian-Pilot reported. He is pushing for a $1 billion annual spending boost for road and transit projects.

Despite legislators’ inability to agree on a budget, they did forward a couple of bills to the governor’s desk that would charge tolls in certain areas.

A measure offered by Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, would allow a toll plaza to be placed on Interstate 95 at the border between Virginia and North Carolina.

The bill – SB614 – could generate $50 million to $60 million annually for each state. Tolls for cars would be $5 with a higher fee for large trucks.

The North Carolina General Assembly also would have to approve the same measure. It would need final approval from Congress.

Another Wagner bill – SB720 – headed to Gov. Kaine’s desk 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.

Despite the success of Wagner’s efforts, several other toll-related measures in Virginia failed to gain passage.

Among those efforts was a bill that would have required the Virginia Department of Transportation 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 – was still awaiting approval in a conference committee when the session ended.

Tolls were sought 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.

Sen. Marty Williams, R-Newport News, killed his own bill that sought to set up a regional bridge authority with the power to levy tolls to pay for roadwork and upgrades on all major bridges and tunnels in Hampton Roads.

The bill – SB192 – passed the Senate and the House Transportation Committee by wide margins but once it reached the House floor the Republican majority removed the tolling authority.

In response to the change, Williams tossed out the modified effort.

A bill from Delegate Leo Wardrup Jr., R-Virginia Beach, would have expanded existing public-private partnership laws in the state to enable “concession” agreements that would allow private groups to improve existing roads or build new ones and then charge tolls to recover costs.

The Senate Finance Committee refused to vote on the measure – HB1426 – prior to the deadline to advance to the full Senate. The House had approved it by unanimous consent.

All of the failed efforts could resurface in the special session.

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