|Friday, March 05, 2004
Panel halts bill to allow tolls on cars
|Cars and light trucks constitute 60 percent to 70 percent of all traffic on Interstate 81.
By Kevin Miller
RICHMOND - Legislation that would have allowed tolls on cars driving Interstate 81 was defeated for the year in a Senate committee on Thursday.
Virginia transportation officials gave preliminary approval last month to a plan that would widen I-81 to eight lanes, with separate lanes for cars and trucks. Under the plan - submitted by a consortium of private builders known as Star Solutions - the expansion would ostensibly be paid for, in part, with toll money collected from both cars and trucks.
But legislation passed by the General Assembly in 2002 permits tolls only on trucks. House Bill 905, sponsored by Republican Del. Leo Wardrup of Virginia Beach, would have allowed tolls on all vehicles.
Wardrup, the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said two federal transportation officials warned him during a meeting in his office that restricting tolls to trucks could put the I-81 project at a competitive disadvantage when it came to federal funding.
Virginia officials hope to receive money from a federal pilot program that encourages public-private partnerships on transportation projects.
State Secretary of Transportation Whitt Clement also urged the Senate Transportation Committee to repeal the prohibition on tolling cars and light trucks, which constitute 60 percent to 70 percent of all I-81 traffic.
"Having this option to toll cars would enable us to have a more robust revenue picture as we pursue federal funding," Clement said.
But many Southwest Virginia lawmakers have resisted the idea, arguing that tolls would constitute a heavy tax on local residents who commute on the interstate. Other legislators have said that car tolls should be a last resort.
After several minutes of debate, transportation committee members voted to "carry over" the bill until the 2005 session - a polite way of essentially killing the bill for the year.
Afterward, Wardrup said he thought a solution could be found to exempt local drivers from paying tolls.
"As far as I'm concerned, I was doing people a favor by carrying this bill," Wardrup said. "It doesn't bother me that it's carried over."