Del. Chris Jones’ tolling policy tucked into budget bill

3/10/2016

Del. Chris Jones found a way to get tolling restrictions passed: the state budget.

Last week, the Senate Transportation Committee stripped the Suffolk Republican’s bill, HB1069, of a provision that prohibited tolling on existing roads without General Assembly approval.

But what the committee wouldn’t do, Jones got done himself – as a budget conferee.

The powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Committee said Thursday that the original language of his bill is now included in the state budget.

“It’s exactly what came out of the House,” said Jones, who was able to get the language in the budget as part of negotiations with Senate budget conferees.

The provision will require General Assembly approval before tolls are added to any existing highway, bridge or tunnel. It does allow tolling without approval in certain cases, such as for high-occupancy toll lanes, new lanes or new bridges.

Jones, who sits on the Hampton Roads Transportation Accountability Commission, said he introduced the bill after the commission looked at six scenarios that would put fixed tolling on nearly every water crossing.

The commission has since backed away from that approach, but Jones said he thought the issue of tolling on existing lanes needed to be addressed.

During last week’s hearing, Senate Transportation Chairman Bill Carrico, R-Grayson County, pulled that policy language out, saying that because he sent many other tolling policy bills to be studied in the interim period, it wouldn’t be fair to let Jones’ provision through.

So Jones opted instead to use the Assembly-approval requirement as a bargaining chip during budget negotiations.

It’s not common for the General Assembly to create policy in the budget, but it does happen from time to time. And because Jones is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, he has the power to do it.

The House and Senate are scheduled to vote on the budget conference report today.

If the language is adopted, it could vastly alter the way future Hampton Roads projects are funded and built. Currently, the Commonwealth Transportation Board makes the final decision on tolling plans.

Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne has said the administration supports the provision, which is a logical next step following a series of transportation reforms over the past few years.

Meanwhile, HB1069 is working its way through the Senate.

The bill adds consumer protections against large tolling penalties and fees. It caps civil penalties and administrative fees for first-time toll offenders at $2,200; sets administration fees for overdue tolls at $25 and then $100 after 60 days; and adjusts other fees at $50 up to $500.

It also includes a provision to require notifications for E-ZPass customers with low balances or other problems, such as missed tolls or a credit card number being declined when money is automatically added to a customer’s account.

Jordan Pascale, 757-446-2276, jordan.pascale@pilotonline.com