Virginia special session to tackle transportation issues, including tolls

| 9/21/2006

A leading state lawmaker in Virginia has filed a bill to create a regional transportation authority with the power to levy tolls to pay for roadwork and upgrades on all major bridges and tunnels in Hampton Roads. Another measure calls for a mix of tolls and fees to pay for needed work.

Sponsored by House Transportation Committee Chairman Leo Wardrup, R-Virginia Beach, the transportation authority bill also would allow for tolls on existing roads, bridges and tunnels. The bill – HB5091 – is expected to be considered by lawmakers in a special session on transportation that starts Monday, Sept. 27.

Wardrup’s effort is similar to a bill that failed earlier this year after the House removed the proposed authority’s ability to collect tolls. However, the latest effort could fare better with the recent endorsement of House Speaker William Howell.

Howell, R-Stafford, has gone as far as to predict the bill’s passage in the House.

“I think tolls are defensible if you’re using them to build and improve facilities that directly help the people who are paying them,” Howell told The Virginian-Pilot.

Despite the wave of support, delegates said the idea of a tolling authority remains controversial. Others said authorizing tolls to be placed on existing roadways would be very difficult to pull off.

Wardrup said the intention of his bill is to allow tolls on existing roads to pay for repairs to that road or to others nearby.

Another bill – HB5072 – expected to draw consideration during the special session would allow for a mix of tolls and fees to pay for the region’s road-building needs.

The bill’s sponsor, Delegate Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, said tolls alone cannot be relied on to pay for the region’s top-priority transportation projects.

“I support the concept of the regional authority, but there must be a sustainable, dedicated source of revenue for it to work,” Jones told The Virginian-Pilot.

The additional fees would include a $25 per axle fee for trucks and a $20 fee on trailers.

House leaders, including Wardrup, have repeatedly said they are not in favor of tax increases to pay for roads. Higher fees also are expected to be a tough sell.

Instead, the Republican-led chamber has indicated they would rather use funds now earmarked for other programs to pay for transportation.

With that in mind, Wardrup has offered a bill – HB5092 – that would spend $339 million from last year’s budget surplus on specific projects. Another bill, HB5082, would send a larger portion of revenues – about $60 million annually – from a state tax on real estate transfers for transportation.