Virginia governor's transportation funding plan gains steam

By Keith Goble, Land Line state legislative editor | 2/1/2013

Gov. Bob McDonnell’s plan to increase transportation funding in Virginia this week knocked down a couple of barriers to passage. A plan to thwart tolling efforts on Interstate 95 also is moving ahead.

The Senate Finance Committee voted 10-5 on Thursday, Jan. 31, to move the governor’s five-year, $3.1 billion funding package to the Senate floor. The House Finance Committee approved a similar plan Wednesday.

SB1355 and HB2313 could come up for floor votes next week in their respective chambers.

Gov. McDonnell’s transportation package relies on an increase to the state’s general sales tax to help raise more than $600 million annually.

To help consumers absorb the tax hike, a first-of-its-kind component is included in the package. It would end collection of the state’s portion of the gas tax. The 17.5-cent-per-gallon tax on diesel purchases would continue.

The governor said in early January that more than two-thirds of the state’s diesel fuel is sold to out-of-state truckers.

Also included in the plan is a vehicle registration fee hike and the imposition of a fee on alternative fuel vehicles.

“The ‘Virginia Road to the Future’ plan will generate the largest infusion of funding for Virginia’s transportation system in more than 25 years, and help create a safe, efficient and reliable transportation system throughout the commonwealth,” McDonnell said in a press release.

The main part of the funding package would eliminate the state’s 17.5-cent-per-gallon gas tax in exchange for increasing the 5 percent sales tax by 0.8 percent. Also included is a provision to raise the current 0.5 percent of the sales tax routed to transportation to 0.75 percent over five years.

By 2018, 1.55 percent of the state’s 5.8 percent sales tax is supposed to go for roads, bridges, transit and rail.

OOIDA officials say the plan to change the user-pays approach for motorists is concerning.

“Moving it so far away from a user-pays structure totally opens the door for money to be pulled away for other uses,” OOIDA Director of Legislative Affairs Ryan Bowley said.

He said the change could open the door to frequent diversions away from the highway program.

One change made to the funding plan this week addresses a concern of many lawmakers and Virginians about toll taxes on I-95.

Gov. Bob McDonnell has authority under state law to seek federal permission to toll existing roadways – except for Interstate 81 – without getting the General Assembly’s approval. A request to charge tolls on I-95 in Sussex County is awaiting final approval by the Federal Highway Administration.

A provision was added to have the Virginia Department of Transportation study whether the new funding plan would ease or eliminate the need to charge road users to access the roadway.

The Senate Finance Committee also approved a bill – SB865 – that would require legislative approval before tolls could be collected on I-95 or any other existing interstates. High-occupancy toll lanes would be exempt from the rule.

“We need to bring the subject of tolls back to its proper place,” Delegate Chris Peace, R-Hanover, said at a recent news conference.

If House and Senate lawmakers approve differing versions of the governor’s funding plan a select group of lawmakers representing both chambers would meet to reach agreement on provisions before it could move to the governor’s desk.

OOIDA encourages Virginia truckers to contact their state lawmakers about the transportation funding plan.

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

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