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Gas tax increase, bonds to fund I-81 upgrades, pass General Assembly

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Interstate 81 New River Bridges 2

The General Assembly approved legislation on transportation issues that hinges on an increase in the state’s gas tax and includes the sale of bonds to finance improvements to Interstate 81, seen in this file photo of the bridges over the New River.

RICHMOND — The General Assembly passed a major transportation package Sunday that will include an increase in the statewide gas tax and funding for improvements to Interstate 81.

The gas tax will increase 5 cents this year and 5 cents next year, and then it’ll be tied to inflation in the future. The House of Delegates and Senate both approved the legislation, which will go to Gov. Ralph Northam, who is looking to build on his past transportation policy successes, including establishing a funding stream for I-81.

The Northam administration originally proposed raising the gas tax 12 cents over three years and scrapping the annual vehicle inspections. While there is not research proving that inspections increase traffic safety, the idea of eliminating them didn’t garner enough support from skeptical legislators.

Instead, lawmakers gave some breathing room to people who fail their inspections. Police can pull over vehicles with stickers on them indicating they failed an inspection. The transportation bills give people 15 days during which they can’t receive a citation, providing them a buffer as they get their vehicles repaired.

Northam also wanted to reduce the $40 vehicle registration fee by $20. The legislature agreed to reduce it by $10 and eliminate the $5 fee people pay when they go to Department of Motor Vehicle offices in person to do a transaction instead of online or by phone.

The legislation also establishes 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 mpg. Fuel-efficient drivers will still end up saving in gas costs. The owner of an electric vehicle would pay 85% of the taxes paid by the owner of the average vehicle.

So 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.

The package will include the sale of roughly $900 million in bonds to expedite I-81 upgrades. With borrowing, crews should be able to complete 60 of 64 planned projects along the 325-mile Virginia section of I-81 by 2028.

The legislation also incorporates a proposal from Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke , to extend the regional gas taxes imposed on the I-81 corridor, Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia to the rest of the commonwealth. Edwards said doing this would provide additional revenue needed for transportation projects in rural areas. Localities not currently in those three regional transportation authorities will face an additional increase of 7.6 cents.

Virginia has struggled with generating enough revenue to support transportation infrastructure. With more fuel-efficient vehicles on the road, the gas tax revenue has been declining while miles driven on Virginia’s roadways have been increasing.

“We’re trying to put in place a sustainable statewide transportation funding model,” said Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, who carried a bill on behalf of the Northam administration.

Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, asked Saslaw about the effects of the transportation policies five years from now.

“I won’t be here,” said Saslaw, who is 80 and has been in the legislature since 1976.

The legislature also approved a measure from Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, for a study on creating a passenger rail corridor to connect the New River Valley to Hampton Roads.

“A commonwealth corridor would lay the tracks for major economic development while decreasing traffic on our roads,” McClellan said. “It’s time for Virginia to have major rail connections that run east-west, not just north-south.”

The Senate defeated a bundle of transportation safety initiatives backed by the Northam administration. The bills would have established an advisory council to review the effectiveness of highway safety policies and allow localities to reduce speed limits in residential and business districts to below 25 mph.

But the part that gave senators pause was making it a primary offense for anyone in a vehicle not wearing a seat belt, meaning law enforcement can pull over a vehicle for that alone.

“I’m not interested in making it easier to pull people over,” Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, said.

In 2018, 819 people died on Virginia’s road, which is up from 700 in 2014. Half of the people who died in 2018 were not wearing seat belts.

“It’s critical to health and safety of Virginians,” Sen. Dave Marsden, D-Fairfax, said.

Senators described fears about people being pulled over because an officer suspected a person wasn’t wearing a seat belt, and that opening the door to police then charging people with various other offenses. Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, said, whether intentional or not, he predicted young people and minorities would be disproportionately pulled over. McClellan said the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus supports the legislation, and two of its members carried the bills.

Proposals for speed cameras on certain stretches of highways and a ban on open containers in vehicles also failed.

The General Assembly did send bills to Northam to allow state and local police to set up speed cameras at highway work sites and school crossing zones. It also passed a ban on holding cellphones while driving.

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