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Members of Caroline County’s legislative delegation to the General Assembly are divided over Gov. Bob McDonnell’s proposal to fund transportation projects.
McDonnell announced his proposed overhaul on the eve of the General Assembly session. Since then, it has gained support across the state from business groups and chambers of commerce in Hampton Roads, Northern Virginia, and Roanoke. However, it also has drawn criticism from Democrats and conservative Republicans.
In addition, state Sen. John Watkins, a Republican from Chesterfield County, has a highway funding proposal of his own.
Both proposals have implications for Caroline, which is a secondary location for an administration plan to impose a toll on Interstate 95.
Among McDonnell’s proposed changes:
• The current 17.5-cents-per-gallon gas tax, which accounts for more than 30 percent of the state’s transportation revenue, would be eliminated; instead, the state sales tax would be raised from 5 percent to 5.8 percent. McDonnell predicted this would generate more than $600 million in additional transportation funds. The 17.5-cent tax on diesel would remain as is.
• A higher percentage of the state sales tax would go directly to transportation funds – from 0.5 percent to 0.75 percent over the five years.
• The plan would impose an increase of $15 for each vehicle registration, resulting in an average vehicle registration cost of $56 per vehicle.
• The state would charge a mandatory $100 alternative fuel vehicle fee. More than 91,000 hybrid and electric vehicles are currently registered in Virginia.
The governor acknowledged that it will be a challenge to overhaul the system for funding and improving Virginia’s transportation network. “If this was easy, it would have been done 25 years ago,” he said.
Watkins’ proposal, which also would require legislative approval for the creation of tolls on existing interstate highways, calls for a 5 percent increase in the wholesale tax on gasoline and diesel. It also doubles the registration fee for electric and hybrid cars and lowers the tax rate on the state’s lowest two income brackets. His plan also expands the sales tax to cover road related services such as car repairs, car washes and tire sales.
Del. Bobby Orrock, R-54th, says he is on board with the governor’s plan, which he called a “great starting point.”
“Fuel efficiency standards and alternative fuel vehicles are making the gas tax less reliable as a funding source,” said Orrock. “By replacing the gas tax with a comprehensive funding proposal, we can stabilize our transportation funding and begin to re-invest in our infrastructure.”
In a regular newsletter e-mailed to constituents, Del. Margaret Ransone, R-99th, noted the importance of transportation in the current legislative session but was undecided on the governor’s proposal.
“I am still reviewing all information on the proposed transportation bills,” she wrote. “An immediate plan is necessary, and I commend everyone that has put solutions together to resolve this issue. Along with the economy, I believe resolving our transportation issue will be at the forefront of our 2013 Session.
Del. John Cox, R-55th, is opposed to the governor’s plan in its current form, according to a legislative assistant.
Democratic critics include Sen. Chap Petersen of Fairfax. He called McDonnell’s plan a “startling turn of events.”
“Eliminating the gas tax is eliminating a tax paid for by the oil and gas companies and placing it on the consumers,” Petersen said. He has introduced legislation (Senate Bill 733) that, instead of eliminating the gasoline tax, would adjust it based on the fuel efficiency index.
Another Democratic senator, Henry Marsh of Richmond, said raising the sales tax to fund road projects would be unfair to many consumers.
“A lot of underprivileged people in urban areas may not drive and instead choose to take the bus. They will have to pay the same tax as those who frequently use the interstates,” he said. Marsh also expressed his concerns that the bill may take funding away from education, health care and law enforcement.
Members of the General Assembly’s Conservative Caucus also have expressed concern over McDonnell’s transportation overhaul plan.
“Conservatives want to see taxes kept low,” said Delegate Ben Cline, R-Amherst, who co-chairs the caucus. “They want to see a plan in place that locks in transportation funding for transportation purposes and not diverted to other uses. And they want to make sure working families aren’t subjected to excessive fee hikes.”
The caucus’ co-chair, Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, criticized the McDonnell’s reluctance to use a larger portion of Virginia’s $1.4 billion surplus over the last three years for transportation funding.
“We have long-standing promises that have been made by governors, current and past, to lock up our transportation trust fund,” Obenshain said. “We need to fulfill that promise so that voters in Virginia have confidence that our transportation funds are going to be dedicated to transportation, not diverted.”
In related developments, a bipartisan group of legislators wants the General Assembly to have a say-so in imposing highway tolls. The group, which includes Cox, was joined by business leaders and local government officials who called for further General Assembly oversight of Virginia’s tolling plans. Except for Interstate 81, tolling existing interstates in Virginia does not require General Assembly approval. Several lawmakers have introduced bills to put the tolling authority under the jurisdiction of the General Assembly.
And the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus said it would fight proposals to levy tolls on I-95, which McDonnell wants to do to finance repairs and construction.
“These tolls would kill small towns and business owners,” said Del. Roslyn Tyler, a Democrat from Jarratt.
The administration has proposed imposing a toll on I-95 in Sussex County.
(This report was compiled from articles supplied by the Capital News Service; Whitney Spicer contributed to this report.)