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Senate advances roads plan

Posted on Thursday, January 31, 2013 at 11:22 am

(updates) A state Senate panel voting along party lines has approved Gov. Bob McDonnell’s plan to overhaul funding for highways.

However, even Republicans concede the governor’s plans likely will be modified or even replaced when it gets to the Senate floor next Tuesday.

The Senate Finance Committee voted 15-5 yesterday to advance the plan. The centerpiece of the governor’s proposal replaces the gas tax with an increase in the sales tax and other fees and diverting some revenue from the state’s general fund.

Four GOP senators publicly expressed reservations about the plan even they voted in favor it. “I’m quite certain it will be massaged,” said Sen. Frank Wagner of Virginia Beach.

Republicans have their work cut out to get any transportation funding plan approved without support from some Democrats. That’s because the Senate is evenly divided among Democrats and Republicans, and Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling cannot cast a tie-breaking vote on revenue bills. And Senate Democrats are chafing over a maneuver by Republicans two weeks ago to sneak through a revised Senate redistricting plan.

The administration revised its transportation measure, opening the door to scuttle proposed tolls for Interstate 95 if the governor’s plan is approved.

The House Finance Committee advanced the governor’s proposal on Wednesday.

The amended legislation would authorize a study of whether the highway plan would mitigate or eliminate the need to impose tolls on I-95. Meanwhile, no tolls would be allowed on the interstate south of Fredericksburg.

There are a number of other highway proposals being debated, but some of those were stopped by Del. Harry Purkey of Virginia Beach, chairman of the House panel. He ruled the committee would only consider the administration’s plan.

Ultimately, the details of a highway funding overhaul probably will be settled by conference committees from both chambers, noted Del. Richard Anderson of Prince William, who had co-sponsored one of the substitute plans ruled out by Purkey.

“We know the real work will be done in the conference” with the Senate, said Anderson.

The administration has submitted an application to the federal government, seeking permission to put a toll on I-95 in Sussex County in order to raise money to repair and maintain the highway. The plan has drawn opposition from local governments along the I-95 corridor, including the Caroline County Board of Supervisors. Caroline is a secondary location for the administration’s I-95 toll plan.

McDonnell’s highway funding plan essentially would jettison the tax on gasoline and increase the sales tax; part of the rationale is that increasingly fuel efficient engines limit revenue from the gas tax. If approved, Virginia would become the first state to eliminate the gas tax.

The governor’s proposal would raise $3.2 billion for transportation over the next five years, but critics note his plan relies heavily on taxing Internet sales under federal legislation that Congress has not approved yet.

A big sticking point likely will be McDonnell’s idea to drop the gas tax. Many lawmakers in both parties view the gas tax as a user fee and do not want to drop it entirely.

Virginia’s gas tax is 17.5 cents per gallon. The state has not increased the gas tax since 1986.