Virginia Senate OKs reworked transportation bill; negotiations continue

| 2/15/2007

A select group of Virginia House and Senate leaders were appointed Wednesday, Feb. 14, to negotiate a deal on a long-term transportation package. The action is the result of House lawmakers earlier in the day rejecting the Senate's alternative plan.

Of particular interest to truckers, the bill 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 Senate Finance Committee made changes to the transportation funding bill earlier in the week before forwarding it to the Senate floor where it was approved on a 23-17 vote. The bill - HB3202 - originally penned by a handful of Republicans in the GOP-led House and Senate, now heads to a conference committee for differences to be ironed out.

Instead of tapping into the state's general fund for $250 million a year for roads, rail and transit projects, the Republican-led Senate opted to add a one-time $150 registration fee for new vehicles coming into the state and newly purchased vehicles. The higher fees would generate about $330 million annually, the Daily Press in Hampton Roads, VA, reported.

The GOP-led House has been adamant about including general fund revenue to help pay for transportation projects. The majority of Republican senators and many Democrats, however, say tapping into the fund will hurt other programs that include education and health care, The Roanoke Times reported.

Other elements of the House plan that were included in the Senate version rely on long-term borrowing, higher fines for the state's worst drivers, tolls, tax and fee increases, surplus money and possible regional taxing authorities.

About $1.4 billion annually in state and regional funds are included in the plan. 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 use tolls as well as levy fees and taxes specifically to pay for local transportation projects.

Tense negotiations between senior lawmakers are anticipated in the conference committee. The group has until the General Assembly's scheduled adjournment Feb. 24 to resolve disagreements.

If an agreement is reached, the compromise version would go before the House and Senate for an up or down vote. No amendments could be made.

- By Keith Goble, state legislative editor