Special session in Virginia focuses on transportation funding

| Friday, September 22, 2006

As lawmakers in Virginia prepare for the start of a special session on transportation Wednesday, Sept. 27, a slew of bills to fund road and bridge work in the state are expected to draw consideration.

One of the more notable efforts that will be discussed during the session is whether 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.

Sponsored by House Transportation Committee Chairman Leo Wardrup, R-Virginia Beach, the transportation authority bill – HB5091 – also would allow for tolls on existing roads, bridges and tunnels.

A separate bill – HB5072 – 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.

Several other transportation funding efforts are expected to draw attention next week.

Legislation filed by Delegate Phillip Hamilton, R-Newport News, would tap into an unusual source for road dollars – pari-mutuel betting on horse races.

The bill – HB5045 – would allow “instant racing,” in which bettors wager on races that have already been run.

The game uses a machine containing video of past races, The Associated Press reported. Bettors have access to the same information they would have about a live race, but they don’t know when or where the race took place.

Hamilton estimates the game could bring in $500 million annually. The bill would earmark 49 percent of the profits to the transportation trust fund.

A second bill offered by Hamilton – HB5046 – would allow judges to assess a “traffic congestion fee” on anyone cited for reckless driving in a wreck that caused significant traffic delays. The fine would be as much as $10,000.

Revenue from the fee would be deposited in the transportation trust fund.

Another bill would revise the formulas used to allocate primary and secondary highway construction funds.

Sponsored by Delegate Scott Lingamfelter, R-Woodbridge, the bill – HB5028 – would distribute funds on the basis of population.

Another bill – HB5088 – offered by Wardrup clarifies that the Commonwealth Transportation Board allocate $50 million each fiscal year in matching funds to localities. The funds would be used for maintenance and construction of state highways.

One other bill is intended to address highway safety concerns.

Sponsored by Delegate John Welch, R-Virginia Beach, the bill would prohibit all drivers from lingering in the passing lane on the state’s interstates.

The measure – HB5033 – would reserve the left lane for drivers passing other vehicles. Exceptions would include exiting to the left and avoiding persons or debris.

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