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Interstate 81 spans 325 miles through Western Virginia. Legislation proposes a highway-use fee for fuel efficient vehicles.

RICHMOND — The Northam administration has rolled out transportation legislation as the governor continues to build on major transportation policies accomplished during his two years as governor.

House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn and Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, both Democrats from Fairfax, are carrying the legislation on behalf of Gov. Ralph Northam. The lengthy 86-page bills lay out measures including increasing the fuel tax and lowering vehicle registration fees.

The legislation also proposes several safety initiatives, such as making it illegal to possess an open container of alcohol in a vehicle and making it a primary offense to not wear a seat belt, meaning police can pull drivers over just for that. The bills also call for establishing a speed monitoring program in highway corridors and allowing localities to lower speed limits below 25 mph in business and residential districts.

The transportation package follows a major transportation victory from Northam last year to establish a funding stream to fix crash-plagued Interstate 81. The legislation includes authorizing a bond issuance for improvements to I-81. Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt, has also filed a bill authorizing up to $2 billion in bonds for I-81 projects.

“As we move forward, what we propose to do is to stabilize the system as we increase funding,” Transportation Secretary Shannon Valentine said.

Meanwhile, lawmakers have proposed several other transportation bills of their own. Transportation officials and lawmakers say they’re trying to bring more fairness to funding transportation projects.

Gas taxes and highway fee

The main feature of the transportation package is to raise the gas tax by 4 cents a gallon for each of the next three years, bringing it to about 22 cents per gallon. That’s just below the national average. The bill will tie the gas taxes to inflation.

“Our gas tax is very low for the transportation system that we have,” Valentine said.

Collecting enough money to pay for transportation projects in Virginia has been a persistent problem. And it’s only become more challenging recently because drivers in Virginia are driving more miles but gas tax revenues are falling.

“The numbers in Virginia are definitely going the wrong way,” Valentine told senators on the transportation subcommittee of the Senate Finance panel.

Virginians don’t own many electric cars, but they do drive more fuel efficient cars, Valentine said.

The legislation proposes a highway-use fee for fuel-efficient and alternative fuel vehicles. The owner of a fuel-efficient vehicle would pay 85% of the difference between the gas tax paid by the owner of the average vehicle, which gets around 24 miles per gallon. Fuel-efficient drivers will still end up saving in gas costs.

Deputy Transportation Secretary Nick Donohue explained it this way: If the owner of the average vehicle paid $100 in state gas taxes, while the fuel-efficient car paid $80, then the additional annual fee would be about $17.

“I’m open to creating additional revenue in transportation, because it’s needed,” Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, said. “Modest increases in the fuel tax statewide would be in order.”

Valentine said Virginia — and the rest of the country — is at least a decade away from implementing a statewide system that would charge a fee for every mile someone drives. She said Virginia is working on participating in a pilot program to test that model for the Interstate 95 corridor.

Road safety

The legislation also proposes cutting the annual vehicle registration fees in half. Transportation officials said by increasing the gas tax and reducing the fees, they can shift more of the burden to out-of-state drivers and those who use the roads more.

Sen. Louis Lucas, D-Portsmouth, and Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, are carrying other bills that adopt safety policies described in the more substantial bills as well as scrap the annual vehicle maintenance inspections.

“We’re not seeing a relationship between safety and safety inspections,” Donohue said.

Still, some lawmakers remain skeptical.

Hanger said the argument that the inspections don’t ensure there are more safe vehicles on the roads seemed “untenable.”

The safety initiatives — requiring mandatory seat belt use for all passengers, a ban on handheld communication devices and open containers of alcohol — would not take effect until July 2021. Valentine said the Department of Motor Vehicles will lead an effort to educate the public on the changes.

Valentine said 819 people died on Virginia’s roads in 2018, which is up from 700 in 2014. She said that half of the people who died in 2018 were not wearing seat belts. She cited distracted driving as a primary factor in the increase in fatalities.

“We talk about safety a lot, but we don’t invest in it a lot,” Valentine said.

Interstate 81

The path to securing a funding stream for I-81 took many twists and turns last year, and lawmakers are still debating the plan.

Under the plan passed last year, an additional 2.1% wholesale tax on gas and diesel has been imposed in the five regional planning districts along the I-81 corridor. That also includes several localities that don’t have I-81 passing through it.

Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, filed a bill to exempt those localities not touching I-81 from paying the extra gas tax.

Some lawmakers often say that Virginia has created a balkanized system forcing regions to come up with their own strategy to pay for their transportation needs. Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads have transportation authorities that set taxes, collect revenue and go through the process of fixing or building infrastructure. The localities along I-81 are all part of what is essentially a transportation authority to do the same thing for I-81.

Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, put in a bill to create the Central Virginia Transportation Authority, composed of Richmond and surrounding localities, and increase the sales and gas tax.

Sens. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, and Hanger both introduced bills that would add an extra 2.1% fuel tax to any locality not in a transportation authority in order to bring the state to the same level. The revenues would be returned to the planning districts to be used for transportation projects.

“We’ve sectioned off regions, and rural areas are lagging in funding,” Edwards said.

Other transportation bills

Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington, proposed forming a Rural Transportation Fund, which would take 10% of annual Virginia Lottery revenues from 2020 to 2024 to be used in rural districts for transportation projects.

Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, and Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, are asking for the Department of Rail and Public Transportation to study the feasibility of an east-west passenger rail service connecting the New River Valley, Richmond and Hampton Roads.

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