|Saturday, January 31, 2004
New bill would throw out toll plan
|Del. Chris Saxman said available state and federal funds could cover the cost of a test project and additional safety improvements on other sections of the interstate.
By Michael Sluss
RICHMOND - A Staunton legislator wants to strip away state-granted authority to toll vehicles using Interstate 81, throwing a new wrinkle into the debate over how to make the highway safer and how to pay for it.
Republican Del. Chris Saxman is sponsoring a legislative package that would prohibit tolls on existing interstates and limit the state's ability to build separate lanes for commercial trucks.
The Virginia Department of Transportation is evaluating proposals from two road-building consortiums to widen the 325-mile stretch of I-81 in Virginia. Both plans rely on tolls to finance at least part of the construction.
Saxman, a member of the House Transportation Committee, said the tolls could hurt businesses and cost Western Virginia "thousands of jobs."
"Both of these programs are unproven and too risky for our commonwealth's economy," Saxman said at a Friday press conference.
The General Assembly in 2002 amended the state's Public-Private Transportation Act to allow for tolls on commercial trucks using Interstate 81. The legislation was critical to Star Solutions' plan to widen the interstate to eight lanes and separate truck traffic from other vehicles. The $13 billion project could get up to $1.6 billion in federal funds that has been earmarked for a test highway project containing dedicated truck lanes. House Majority Leader Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, is a key supporter of the Star Solutions proposal.
Lawmakers this year will consider legislation that would allow for tolls on car , as well. That bill (HB 905) is essential to Fluor Virginia's $7 billion plan to widen most of I-81 to six lanes.
A VDOT advisory committee responsible for evaluating the competing plans is scheduled to hold its last meeting Feb. 13. Secretary of Transportation Whitt Clement said he hopes to receive a recommendation from the group on that date.
Saxman said the state can address the highway's safety problems without widening the entire corridor and without charging tolls. One of the five bills in Saxman's package would limit the length of a car-truck separation project to 85 miles and prohibit tolls on the road segment.
"Let's focus it on a section of interstate and say, 'Does it really work,' before we say, 'Let's do 325 miles' and associate another $11.5 billion in costs on top of that," Saxman said.
Saxman said available state and federal funds could cover the cost of a test project and additional safety improvements on other sections of the interstate. Tolls would be unfair to Western Virginia and harmful to the region's economy, he said, especially with lawmakers considering bills to increase gas taxes.
"What we're talking about here on a lot of levels is fairness and equity to the economy of Western Virginia," Saxman said. "When you're suggesting the possibility of a federal gas tax increase, a potential state gas tax increase and a toll on top of that, I think Western Virginia stands to lose thousands of jobs."
Virginia Trucking Association Executive Vice President Dale Bennett said Saxman's proposal makes more sense than tolling trucks on an untested project.
"Are we go ng to put a $13 billion tax on our industrial supply chain without even knowing whether it will work?" Bennett said.
Representatives of the Virginia Manufacturing Association and the Virginia Poultry Federation appeared with Saxman and endorsed his legislation.
"It's adding some rational debate to a process that, in our opinion, is largely out of control," said Brett Vassey, the president of the Virginia Manufacturing Association. "This debate on converting an entire commerce-based infrastructure to a mandatory toll facility is, in our opinion, without merit and without any substantiation at all."
But Clement said the state would have a hard time making significant improvements to I-81 in the near future without using alternative financing methods such as tolls.
"Given the hand we've been dealt, and given the fact that, over the next six years, we're already programming over $400 million just for maintenance, we are aggressively seeking innovative ways to move our transportation program forward," Clement said.
Representatives for Star Solutions and Fluor said the consortiums oppose Saxman's plan to prohibit tolls.
Griffith said he understood Saxman's concerns. But the House majority leader considers tolls on trucks the best way to finance large-scale improvements to I-81 without having to wait for decades. Griffith also fears the state could lose out on $1.6 billon in federal support if plans for a separate truck lane get shelved.
"I-81 has so much traffic and has become so unsafe that we need to fix it," Griffith said. "In order to fix it in a quicker-than-normal fashion, we need help. The only way I can see that we can get the money in that type of time frame is by tolling trucks."
Saxman said he expects his bills to pick up support, despite the positions staked out by Griffith and other lawmakers.
Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, said lawmakers should leave open the option of tolling trucks. But, he added, they also should move more aggressively toward improving the state's rail infrastructure in an effort to divert some freight away from I-81 and other congested roadways. Edwards is sponsoring legislation (SB 413) that would create a rail authority that could issue bonds for infrastructure improvements.
"I'm not suggesting rails only, but rail is a major component of solving the I-81 problem," Edwards said.