Toll talk succumbs to end of special session in Virginia

| 10/5/2006

Virginia lawmakers left the capitol last week after accomplishing next to nothing during their two-day special session on transportation funding. Among the failed efforts was legislation related to tolling.

The breakdown in talks for how to come up with about $1 billion a year in additional revenue for roads, bridges and tunnels fell along the same lines as what led to this year’s budget impasse that dragged out the regular session.

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, including a fuel tax increase, are needed to address congestion and maintenance costs, while House leaders are vehemently opposed to higher taxes and fees.

The final straw came when a Senate panel rejected the bulk of a $2.4 billion House transportation plan that relied heavily on debt and existing revenues that otherwise would be earmarked for schools, health care and other services, The Associated Press reported.

Among the tolling initiatives that failed to win approval was a bill offered by Delegate John Cosgrove that would require the Commonwealth Transportation Board to impose tolls to be imposed on all vehicles crossing the North Carolina-Chesapeake line on U.S. 17.

The border-tolling measure – HB5086 – was awaiting consideration in the Senate Finance Committee when legislators went home. The House previously approved it.

Tolls were being sought to pay for improvements to the highway, widening Dominion Boulevard in Chesapeake and replacing the two-lane Steel Bridge on U.S. 17.

Toll rates for large trucks with three or more axles would have started at $3 per trip. Rates for other vehicles would have been determined after a study by the city of Chesapeake and the Virginia Department of Transportation.

While some talks during the special session focused on whether to enter into agreements with public or private groups to buy or lease certain roadways or portions of roadways in the state, a bill from Delegate Robert Marshall, R-Manassas, would have placed conditions on any agreement.

Marshall’s bill – HB5068 – required that the General Assembly sign off on any agreement “to transfer responsibility for control, maintenance and/or operation of any toll facility to any other public or private entity.”

A separate bill offered by Delegate John Welch, R-Virginia Beach, would have put a requirement on any toll route that remains under state control.

The measure – HB5067 – mandated that all toll facilities controlled by VDOT be capable of fully automated electronic operation by July 1, 2008.

One other bill required that the Commonwealth Transportation Board designate any high-occupancy vehicle lanes, or HOV lanes, along Northern Virginia roadways as high-occupancy toll lanes, or HOT lanes.

The lanes would remain free for carpoolers but other vehicles would be allowed to use them at varying toll rates, depending on the time of day.

Sponsored by Delegate William Fralin, R-Roanoke, the bill – HB5089 – followed an announcement by Gov. Tim Kaine last month that developers working on HOT lanes for Interstate 95 in Northern Virginia have been awarded a $10 million interest free loan.

The bills from Marshall and Welch were approved in the House only to be sidelined in the Senate. Fralin’s bill didn’t make it out of the House.

Efforts to come up with funding for transportation projects will have to wait until next year during the 45-day regular session that begins in January.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor