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End of the road for gas tax?
Local legislators see merit in plan

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Two local legislators said Gov. Bob McDonnell’s transportation bill may be good for drivers in rural Virginia, and a third said it would level the playing field between drivers with alternative fuel vehicle and those driving older, less efficient models.

However, all caution that they have just now begun to study the bill and they need more time to analyze it before making a final decision.

McDonnell proposed a five-year, $3.1 billion transportation funding package Tuesday that would include replacing the state gasoline tax with a sales tax increase of 0.8 cents, or less than a penny on the dollar.

The tax on diesel fuel would remain at its current level of 17.5 cents per gallon, The Associated Press reported.

McDonnell also wants to raise $547 million over five years by increasing vehicle registration fees by $15, and his proposal to tack an annual $100 fee on alternative fuel vehicles would raise an additional $66.6 million, according to the AP.

“I haven’t evaluated the whole thing, but I think it’s got some merit,” Del. Don Merricks, R-Pittsylvania County, said Tuesday.

With more fuel efficient and alternative fuel cars on Virginia roadways, it likely is a good idea to “bite that bullet” by eliminating the gas tax, “but I haven’t really analyzed it to know” what impact would be on his constituents, Merricks said.

“For people in our area and other rural areas, it would probably be better” to replace the gas tax, he added.

If that happens, “I would expect we would have the lowest gas prices on the East Coast and because we are in rural areas, we drive more,” Merricks said. “I don’t have any statistics to support that, but I would think it would be better” for those in rural areas.

Merricks said he was certain of one thing: “If we don't do something” to address transportation needs, “there will be a push to change the transportation funding formula and that would really hurt us.”

In that case, rural areas could expect less money for road projects while more populated centers such as Hampton Roads would receive more, he said.

“We have got to come up with a plan that is not burdensome, but also a plan that will work,” Merricks said. He added that accomplishing both in a single proposal is difficult.

In all likelihood, he said he would support McDonnell’s proposal, “but I’m still looking at it. To me it makes sense, especially (eliminating) the gas tax. I think that’s something we’ve got to come to terms with” because it has been diminishing for a number of years.

Del. Danny Marshall, R-Danville, said he had not had a chance to review the proposal in depth, but “I think there are some interesting points” in it.

“From what I have seen .... and theoretically” if the gas tax is eliminated, Marshall said it may be a better solution for residents of rural Virginia “who drive longer distances anyway.”

But “I haven't had a chance to see the numbers. I don’t know if I will support it,” Marshall said. “I just got it less than an hour ago and I haven’t had a chance yet to look at it to see how it affects us in our part of the state.”

Alex Thorup, legislative director for Del. Charles Poindexter, R-Glade Hill, said the delegate still was reviewing the proposal and likes some of what he has seen so far, including eliminating the gas tax.

“The gas tax is, in our view, essentially a dying breed because of fuel efficiency and new alternative fuel vehicles,” Thorup said. “You have states, including Virginia, that are moving their entire state fleets toward alternative fuel vehicles.”

Eliminating the gas tax “levels the playing field between drivers” with alternative fuel vehicles and those who drive older model, less fuel-efficient models, he said.

He said he thinks the bill has a good chance of passing once people learn more about it.

“The new package really represents the governor’s office and the transportation office taking a big step to address this,” he said. “The way this package has been developed not only addresses the issue facing us now, but will sustain us for a good number of years.”

Thorup said he has not heard any discussion of funding for specific projects, but Poindexter and his staff are working on a bill that would increase funding to complete U.S. 58 across Southside Virginia. That bill may be available for public inspection today, he added.

State Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Glade Hill, could not be reached for comment.


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