The Northern Virginia Daily's Political Depot

A service for our readers outside the Northern Shenandoah Valley... a sampling of The Daily's political coverage, plus unofficial, 'reporter's notebook' stuff. And occasional dry humor...

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Location: Strasburg, Virginia

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Va. transportation bills hit brick wall in House; B1

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

RICHMOND — Four Senate transportation bills, including one from a local legislator, ran into a brick wall in the House of Delegates on Wednesday.

The House Finance Committee tabled bills for 90 days that would raise taxes statewide to pay for roads and allow for the creation of regional authorities in Hampton Roads, Northern Virginia and along Interstate 81.

The action doesn’t kill the bills outright, but doesn’t advance them to the full House for a vote, either.

Among the four was a bill by Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr., R-Winchester, which would have allowed for any three cities or counties along the I-81 corridor to go in together and raise the sales tax by 1 percent to fund local road projects.

Potts wasn’t on hand to take questions from the panel.

“I’m sorry the senator could not be with us,” said Del. Ben Cline, R-Amherst, before expressing concerns about Potts’ bill.

The Virginia Department of Transportation is considering a major improvement of Interstate 81, he said, and the House will want more information about how Potts’ proposed regional authorities will interact with that process before giving their assent.

Sen. Fred Quayle, R-Chesapeake, Potts’ seat mate and the patron of the Hampton Roads bill, said he was of the impression that the Potts bill was designed more for projects like the extension of Va. 37, also known as the Frederick County Eastern Loop.

Potts has said in recent interviews that his bill isn’t designed to address the valley’s major highway, but smaller projects of regional importance.

Another bill would have raised a litany of taxes to pay for statewide road improvements.
Sen. Charles Hawkins, R-Chatham, the bill’s patron and one of the Senate’s more passionate orators, told the committee in rising tones that transportation congestion is costing the state dearly, and may someday cost the state lives.

Hawkins said he had been told by officials with Ford that traffic tie-ups in Hampton Roads make it 20 percent more expensive to ship vehicles from their Norfolk plant.

While congestion wasn’t the only factor behind the decision to close a 2,400-employee plant in 2008, it certainly didn’t help the situation, he said.

Virginia could also be in for a tragedy if a major hurricane like Katrina blows in from the Atlantic with little notice. Evacuation might prove difficult given the current state of roads in the Tidewater area.

The mood in the House is much more inclined toward regional approaches, rather than a statewide tax hike, said Del. Tim Hugo, R-Centreville.

Legislation to raise taxes for roads and mass transit in Northern Virginia would “stand a much better chance” of passing if it wasn’t tied to a statewide plan, he told the bill’s patron, Sen. Jeannmarie Devolites-Davis, R-Vienna.

Other members insisted that it’s premature to talk about transportation. Virginia has to have a budget in place before the legislature can talk about new taxes for highways.

That doesn’t make sense, said Davis. Legislators should be able to tackle two things at the same time.

The real issue, she said, is that senators aren’t convinced the House will be open to talking about the situation if the upper chamber gives in and passes a budget without an integrated transportation package.

“I think we have some trust issues,” she said.

There has to be a statewide ap-proach to transportation, Hawkins added. Without it, the state will have “thriving lilies in a stagnant pond,” he said.

Hawkins also went to great lengths to draw the 6-cent fuel terminal operators fee as something other than a tax. It’s a tax-deductible business expense, he said.

Call it what you will, it will drive terminal operators out of Virginia, said Mike Ward of the Virginia Petroleum Council.

Some terminal operators, who only act as a warehouse for gasoline, make as little as a half cent on each gallon they distribute, Ward said.

“They have to pass that fee on to survive,” he said.

The tax would also increase the number of tanker trucks on Virginia roads, he said. On average, it would be $480 cheaper to fill up a truck in North Carolina and ship in the fuel than it would be to fill up in Virginia.

Hawkins acknowledge that the bills weren’t perfect, but said they were designed as a place to get the conversation started.

Long-term debt and general fund money for transportation “are the only two things that are off the table,” he said.

Legislators are due back in Richmond on Wednesday.