Virginia House OKs transportation plan

| 2/9/2007

The chances for a long-term transportation funding solution in Virginia took a positive turn this week.

House lawmakers voted 61-37 Tuesday, Feb. 6, to approve a bill that would tap into the state's general fund for $250 million to go for roads, rail and transit projects. It also relies on:

  • Long-term borrowing;
  • Higher fines for the state's worst drivers;
  • Toll, tax and fee increases;
  • Use of surplus money; and
  • Possible regional taxing authorities.

That same day, which was the final day for the House and Senate to act on their own legislation, senators chose to return a transportation funding bill to committee. It called for a 5 percent sales tax on fuel purchases and less money from the general fund.

The House plan - HB3202 - was the result of several weeks of negotiations between a handful of Republicans in the GOP-led House and Senate. After the day's events, Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine congratulated House lawmakers for working out a deal.

"This vote was an important step, and much hard work remains," Kaine said in a written statement. "There is ample time to craft a plan that moves Virginia forward before this session is scheduled to adjourn (Feb. 24)."

Meanwhile, many Democrats in the statehouse were not in the congratulatory mood. Their complaints centered on the plan's reliance on general fund revenue. They say it will hurt other programs that include education and health care, The Roanoke Times reported.

Of particular interest to truckers, the GOP-plan includes a provision to increase the state's 16-cent-per-gallon tax on diesel to 17.5 cents. It also would boost penalties for overweight trucks and heavy truck registration fees.

The 40-page Republican plan includes about $1.4 billion annually in state and regional funds. It also authorizes bonds totaling $2 billion and dedicating nearly $230 million of the state's surplus funds.

In addition, regional authorities for Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia would be authorized to place tolls on new or upgraded roads.

HB3202 now heads to the Senate for further consideration.

Another effort moving through the statehouse would tap into an unusual source for road dollars - pari-mutuel betting on horse races.

The Senate voted 23-14 Tuesday to approve a bill that would allow "instant racing," in which bettors wager on races that have already been run. The majority of the profits, 51.5 percent, would be earmarked for the transportation trust fund.

A study commissioned by Colonial Downs, which operates the state's only horse racing track and its nine satellite facilities, estimated that the measure would raise about $300 million for transportation, The Associated Press reported.

The bill - SB1410 - has been forwarded to the House.