Virginia lawmakers debate transportation funding

| Thursday, September 28, 2006

Lawmakers in Virginia returned to the capitol Wednesday, Sept. 27, for a four-day special session to consider about 100 bills to pay for road and bridge work.

Disputes about highway and transit stalled passage of a budget to fund state agencies and provide state assistance to cities and counties through the summer of 2008. But House and Senate lawmakers decided to pass a budget in June without tackling transportation.

Problems stem from Republican leaders in the House and Senate who haven’t been able to reach agreement on funding. Senate leaders say new revenues are needed to address congestion and maintenance costs while House leaders say tax and fee increases are unpopular and unnecessary.

Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine has called for legislators to work toward an agreement, saying the state needs about $1 billion a year in additional revenue for roads, bridges and transit.

As lawmakers work to hammer out deals, a key House panel Tuesday, Sept. 26, once again ruled out tax increases to shore up the state’s transportation program.

The House Finance Committee voted 19-3 to reject a Senate-sponsored plan to increase the state’s per-gallon tax on motor fuels by about 8 cents to 25 cents per gallon. The bill – SB5013 – also called for increasing motor vehicle registration fees by $10 for all vehicles and doubling the gross weight registration fee for vehicles weighing more than 10,000 pounds.

The panel also rejected an effort that was billed as a compromise between the House and Senate. Sponsored by Delegate David Albo, R-Springfield, the bill – HB5056 – would have allowed localities in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads to tap tolls and higher fees and taxes for transportation improvements.

A bill that the Senate approved in the spring that used a similar approach to fund Northern Virginia projects was also unanimously defeated in the finance panel. The bill – SB5016 – was sponsored by Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis, R-Vienna.

A toll-only regional option, however, is still alive.

Sponsored by House Transportation Committee Chairman Leo Wardrup, R-Virginia Beach, the bill would 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.

The bill – HB5091 – would allow for tolls on existing roads, bridges and tunnels. Rates could vary between water-crossings and fluctuate by time of day.

Electronic tolls would be required to be used to minimize congestion at collection points.

Wardrup’s bill passed the House Transportation Committee and is awaiting consideration on the House floor.

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