Virginia lawmakers pursue vast road funding options

By Keith Goble, Land Line state legislative editor | 1/26/2012

Various options are being pursued at the Virginia statehouse to address needs for sustained funding for transportation projects.

Gov. Bob McDonnell recently announced efforts to raise revenue without increasing taxes. His plans include diverting revenue from other budgets, selling naming rights to the state’s roads and bridges, and privatizing infrastructure.

Critics of the governor’s agenda say his plans will not sustain transportation revenue. Instead, they want to increase taxes to help foot the bill.

In addition, Virginia Democrats have offered plans to thwart, or at least slow down, the governor’s push to charge tolls to access key routes.

Delegate Roslyn Tyler, D-Jarratt, introduced a bill – HB778 – to prohibit charging tolls on Interstate 95 without first getting approval from the General Assembly.

The Federal Highway Administration has granted the Virginia Department of Transportation preliminary approval to convert the 180-mile long portion of the roadway into a toll road.

Gov. McDonnell is pushing plans to get started on charging highway users to access the roadway. Currently, he does not need legislative approval to move forward.

OOIDA opposes tolling on existing federal highways. The Association says that tolls in addition to other user fees including fuel taxes amount to double taxation on highway users.

A separate effort is intended to head off plans to charge tolls on two tunnels linking Portsmouth and Norfolk. The Downtown and Midtowns tunnels are slated to have fees applied later this year.

Truckers will be responsible for paying $7.36 per round trip at peak hours and motorists will pay about $4 during the same time period.

The revenue will be used to pay for expansion of the Midtown Tunnel and rehabilitation of the Downtown Tunnel. A provision is also included to allow the private operator, Elizabeth River Crossings, to impose annual increases.

Delegate Kenny Alexander, D-Norfolk, said he has a better plan. He offered a bill to pay for transportation projects by applying the state’s 5 percent general sales tax to fuel purchases.

Indexing the fuel tax would enable the state to keep pace with costs. To offset some of the additional expense for truckers and motorists, HB892 would reduce the fuel tax rate from 17.5 cents to 12.5 cents per gallon.

It is estimated the change in tax collections could add $550 million each year for new construction and maintenance work.

The Republican governor and GOP leaders in the statehouse oppose any new taxes for transportation. With that in mind, Alexander also introduced HB889 to enable truckers and other drivers to pay the tolls to access the bridges in cash.

Another effort underway in Richmond could help cap tolls on the Dulles Greenway. Tolls were increased Jan. 1 on the roadway extending from the Dulles Toll Road to the Leesburg Bypass in Loudoun County.

Delegate David Ramadan, R-Loudoun, introduced HB1246 to permit owner TRIP II to lease its property for roadside advertising. In return, the Dulles Greenway would be required to use distance pricing on the 14.5-mile route.

Since the first of the year the cost to travel the roadway during peak periods is $14.40 for trucks and $4.80 for motorists. The rate is the same whether travelers get off at the first exit or drive the length of the Greenway.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association remains committed to the fuel tax as the primary way to fund highways.

“OOIDA recommends the next federal highway bill contain a provision requiring that highway users be reimbursed for any state and federal fuel taxes they pay on miles driven on any existing toll roads or future toll roads,” Association leadership states in its list of highway funding principles.

To view other legislative activities of interest for Virginia, click here.

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