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Transportation bill OK’d
Stanley opposed road bill; area delegates voted for it
Sen. Bill Stanley
Sunday, February 24, 2013
By BULLETIN STAFF REPORTS -
Transportation reform legislation — heralded as the centerpiece of Gov. Bob McDonnell’s 2013 policy agenda and his last, best shot at a legislative legacy — is headed to the governor’s desk after passing the Senate Saturday.
The state Senate voted 25-15 to approve the measure before the General Assembly adjourned its 46 day session.
State Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Glade Hill, was among the 12 Republicans who voted against the transportation bill because, he said, it raises taxes on all Virginians.
“I voted against the bill because in the end, it is putting” the cost of a road plan “on the backs of all Virginians” and will help only northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, Stanley said. The plan “will not benefit” taxpayers in Southside.
The bill replaces Virginia’s 17 1/2 cents-per-gallon retail gasoline tax with a 3.5 percent wholesale tax on gasoline and a 6 percent levy on diesel fuel. It boosts statewide sales taxes from 5 percent to 5.3 percent. It increases the titling tax on car sales and adds a $100 registration fee for fuel-sipping hybrid vehicles. It also rules out proposed tolls on Interstate 95 south of Petersburg, The Associated Press reported.
Altogether, it would generate new statewide revenue totaling $880 million annually for the state’s 58,000-mile network of roads when fully phased in within four years. It could provide hundreds of millions more, provided localities in Virginia’s most critically gridlocked regions of northern Virginia and Hampton Roads adopt elective regional tax increases, the AP reported.
While local delegates have supported the bill because they said it helps rural Virginians by eliminating the gas tax, Stanley said “that is all a matter of interpretation and degrees,” because other taxes likely will be put on gas companies and then “passed onto you and me” at the pump.
Also, Stanley said he “made myself clear I would not vote for a transportation plan unless there was a clear funding stream for (U.S.) 58 and (Interstate) 73.”
“My pleas were ignored” entirely for I-73, Stanley said. While the plan does include some funding for U.S. 58, it is “not until 2020,” and the amount earmarked is so low that “in today’s economy, it would barely pay for a guardrail.”
Dels. Danny Marshall, Don Merricks and Charles Poindexter were among the 60 delegates who supported the bill on Friday. Forty delegates opposed the measure.
“I think, overall, it’s a pretty good comprise bill,” Merricks, R-Pittsylvania County, said Friday from Richmond. “There are some things I don’t like ... but we don’t get to itemize everything.”
“Any time you have 140 people with 140 ideas — 141 including the governor,” compromise is needed, and that is the case with this bill, he said. He said he did not like some things that were changed in the original bill, which he was a copatron of, but “you look at the whole thing and make a judgment on that.”
Both Merricks and Marshall said they have been receiving phone calls and emails from people urging them to vote against the bill because it is a huge tax increase. The delegates said that is not the case.
Merricks said a family that makes $40,000 a year and spends $11,000 on taxable goods and services will pay $33 more a year in taxes under the bill. If the same family drives 25,000 miles a year in a vehicle that gets 20 miles per gallon, the savings will be between $62 and $63 a year. The difference, he said, is a savings of about $30, depending on gas prices, how much someone drives and other factors.
“It is a good bill for rural Virginia,” Poindexter said, adding that people are forgetting that they are going to pay less gas tax if the bill passes.
“Converting to sales tax is a much smarter idea,” he said, because it is a sustainable source of revenue and visitors to the state will pay more in sales tax than gas tax.
The bill gives the option of raising the sales tax from 5 to 6 percent in Northern Virginia and the Hampton Roads area, and the revenue from the increase would stay in those areas to tackle transportation problems there, said Marshall, R-Danville.
“By this bill, if you live in Henry County, Martinsville and Southside rural Virginia, you won’t pay for it (road projects in Northern Virginia or Tidewater) until you go there and spend money,” he said. “If they want to fix their own problems, they’ll pay for it.”
There were other reasons they supported the measure.
Marshall said they have talked to the state Secretary of Transportation and others in his office and received assurances that if the bill passed, certain projects would move forward. One of them would be engineering and right-of-way work for the proposed Interstate 73, starting at the U.S. 58 bypass and going to the Patriot Centre industrial park and then north.
“They won’t be moving dirt this summer, but it would start the process,” he said.
The bill also will provide a way to pay for U.S. 58 improvements that were authorized in a separate bill Poindexter sponsored, the Glade Hill delegate said. His bill was approved by both chambers last week.
Merricks noted that in 1976 when the gas tax was set at 17.5 cents, it cost about $25,000 to pave one mile of road. Today, the gas tax is unchanged, but it costs $80,000 to pave one mile, he said.
“We’re not getting the purchasing power of the gas tax,” he said, especially with gas sales dropping as more people switch to hybrid and more fuel-efficient vehicles.
“We need to tie transportation to funds that will grow as the economy grows. That’s what this bill does,” Merricks said.
Marshall also noted that in five years, all the money coming into the state’s Transportation Trust Fund will go to maintenance of existing roads. There will be none for new construction, he added.
At the same time, Virginia has dropped from first to third place in rankings for the best state in the nation to do business because of the transportation problems, mainly in Northern Virginia and Tidewater, he said.
“This is a problem when you’re trying to recruit businesses and they see you have transportation problems when in five years there will be no money for new roads,” Marshall said. “How are they going to get goods and services moving throughout the state?”
Merricks warned that if the bill did not pass, there would be efforts to increase representation from Northern Virginia and Tidewater on the Commonwealth Transportation Board, which approves highway projects, and/or efforts to shift road funds to those parts of the commonwealth.
Poindexter said it is important that those things are not in the bill. “It was a big concession for rural Virginia,” he added.
Another complaint legislators have heard is that state funds should be cut, not increased, Marshall said. But he said since McDonnell took office three years ago, the state budget has been cut by $7 billion, and is lower now than in 2006. Also, there are 25 percent fewer employees in the Virginia Department of Transportation now.
“We have cut and cut and cut,” Marshall said. “The problem is five years out, if we don’t fix” road problems, they only are going to be more expensive to repair.
“You’ve got to do what’s right when you’re down here,” Poindexter said. “That’s (the transportation bill) an opportunity we haven’t had in 15 years to get enough minds to agree in something.”