Virginia transportation stalemate continues as budget deadline approaches

News AASHTO Journal May 12, 2006
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The Virginia Senate recently passed four transportation bills in an attempt to resolve budget concerns and ways to fund surface transportation improvements. However, the House Finance Committee tabled the bills until Aug. 1, and urged the Senate to pass the House-approved budget bills instead.

"It is time to separate the debate. It is time to understand that the budget of this commonwealth is in place," said Sen. Charles Hawkins, (R-Pittsylvania) and sponsor of the Senate's new $748 million-a-year transportation bill. The state budget expires June 30.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported Hawkins' plan features a 6-cents-per-gallon fee that would be assessed on major fuel-distribution terminals in Virginia, a move he and other supporters framed as a slap at the petroleum industry as gas prices shoot past $3 a gallon.

The Senate's transportation package is a quarter of the size of a previous $1 billion package. The Times-Dispatch reported that in addition to the terminal operators' fee, the package includes new taxes on titling and registering cars, punitive new fines on bad drivers and an increase in the sales tax on diesel by 1.5-cents-per-gallon to match the 17.5-cents-per-gallon state gasoline tax. It also dedicates taxes paid on car-insurance premiums to transportation.

Hawkins' bill would earmark $50 million to rail, direct 15% of the revenues to transit and 85% to road construction.

The Senate also passed "regional self-help" options for northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and localities along I-81, but none of them take effect unless a statewide plan passes.

In nine Washington, D.C., localities, four counties and five cities in the Washington, D.C., suburbs would raise about $388 million annually through new taxes, including a 0.5% sales tax boost, the Times-Dispatch reported.

In 11 Hampton Roads cities and counties, a 1% sales tax increase would take effect in all jurisdictions if at least eight of the local governing bodies ratify it, and tolls can be levied on any new or improved road projects. It would generate nearly $190 million by 2009.

Along the I-81 corridor, any three or more neighboring localities in the same state highway construction district could form a regional transportation authority and impose a 1% local sales tax increase if approved by each local government.

But this week House Finance Committee members who oppose any new taxes for transportation voted unanimously to table the Senate's proposals. Instead, House Speaker William Howell urged the Senate to act on the House-approved budget bills.

"I look forward to a thorough discussion and debate on innovative results-oriented solutions to meet Virginia's transportation challenges in this new century," he said after the passage of the bills.

The Virginia Assembly is in the seventh week of a special session called after the body failed to produce a budget during the regular session.

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