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Assembly passes roads overhaul, scuttles I-95 toll plan

Posted on Friday, March 1, 2013 at 9:45 am

RICHMOND – A divided Virginia Senate passed Gov. Bob McDonnell’s signature issue of the 2013 legislative session – a bill to overhaul the state’s system for funding transportation.

Just hours before the session’s end on Saturday of last week, the Senate voted 25-15 to pass House Bill 2313, which will raise about $880 million a year more for roads and mass transit by increasing sales taxes while lowering the fuels tax.

The debate over how to increase revenue continued right up to the vote.

“This isn’t any bill. This is the only bill,” said Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment, R-Williamsburg.

Supporters said it was the only way to provide the revenue Virginia’s transportation system needs – and to ease traffic congestion in Northern Virginia and Tidewater.

Critics disagreed.

“To me, the final bill represents bad economics and bad transportation policy,” said Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria. He said the state should raise its gasoline tax to address the problems.

“This is truly the best we’re going to get,” said Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax.

Other senators echoed that sentiment.

“Do I feel like we have anyone in this body that can make a perfect plan? No,” said Sen. Charles Carrico, R-Galax. But he said the transportation plan was close enough and a product of a great deal of compromise between parties.

Still, a dozen Republican senators and three Democrats voted against the bill.

The overhaul, which was negotiated by a conference committee and approved 60-40 by the House on Friday, would:

• Eliminate the 17.5-cents-per-gallon gasoline tax that consumers pay at the pump. Instead, the state would impose a 3.5 percent tax on gasoline at the wholesale level. The wholesale tax on diesel fuel would be 6 percent.

• Increase Virginia’s sales tax from 5 percent to 5.3 percent.

• Raise the motor vehicle sales tax from 3 percent to 4.3 percent.

• Charge a $100 annual license tax for electric and alternative fuel vehicles.

• Allow a 0.7 percent sales tax increase in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia to fund transportation projects there.

The plan also would boost the proportion of the state’s general fund revenue dedicated to transportation from 0.5 percent to 0.675 percent.

The compromise deal also would prohibit tolls on Interstate 95 south of Fredericksburg without approval from the General Assembly. The McDonnell was in the process of seeking federal approval to impose a toll on I-95 in Sussex County. Caroline County was a secondary location for collecting tolls.

The legislation requires that, “No tolls shall be imposed or collected on Interstate 95 south of Fredericksburg pursuant to the Interstate System Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program without the prior approval of the General Assembly.”

Passage of legislation that would have the effect of halting the Virginia Department of Transportation’s proposed toll facilities in Sussex County was welcome news to the businesses, local governments, and citizens of that region and along the I-95 corridor who have fought for the past six months to keep tolls off of I-95.

“We are thankful that the General Assembly heard loud and clear that tolling I-95 in Sussex County is not in the best interest of the Commonwealth.  This is the right decision for Southside Virginia and it is the right decision for the Commonwealth of Virginia,” said Dave Whittington, Greensville County Administrator.

Among those legislators who played a leading role against the I-95 toll were Del. Chris Peace, Del. Roslyn Tyler and Sen. Donald McEachin.  “Although I wasn’t pleased with the overall transportation plan, the elimination of tolls was one of the few bright spots in the bill,” said Peace.

Twenty-three localities, including Caroline, plus 13 business associations, five economic and planning organizations and numerous businesses and public safety groups joined over 7,000 individuals who signed an online petition opposing the toll plan.

The transportation funding package now goes to McDonnell for his signature.

In a press release, the governor said, “The annals of history will recognize this session as the year that vital transportation funding reforms, substantively ignored since 1986, were enacted to address the decades-old issues that have left Virginia unable to maintain our existing road, rail and transit infrastructure and unable to pay for needed new transportation services.”