House committee approves state tolling policy, but battle continues over I-66

2/4/2016

By MICHAEL MARTZ Richmond Times-Dispatch

Legislation to establish a state policy on where tolls may be imposed and how they are collected cruised through a House committee on Thursday, but an attempt to find a compromise over tolls on a portion of Interstate 66 remains under construction.

The House Transportation Committee voted 15-4 to approve legislation proposed by House Appropriations Chairman S. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, whose committee will consider it next for potential effects on the state budget.

The committee also voted unanimously to approve a companion bill that would authorize Virginia to negotiate reciprocity agreements with Maryland and other states to collect an estimated $21 million in unpaid tolls by motorists using the multistate E-ZPass system.

Four Northern Virginia Republicans voted against the tolling policy bill, citing the position taken by Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford, and the House GOP caucus during political campaigning last fall to oppose any tolls on I-66 inside of the Capital Beltway without widening a portion of the road first.

“My concern is not what the bill does; it’s what it doesn’t do,” said Del. James M. LeMunyon, R-Fairfax, who introduced House Bill 1 last year to block tolls on I-66 inside the Beltway.

LeMunyon’s bill continues to idle in the Transportation Committee as he searches for a compromise with Jones and state transportation officials concerned about the proposed prohibition’s harm to the state’s top transportation priority to widen I-66 outside of the Beltway.

If the bill survives scrutiny in the Transportation Committee, it too is likely to end up in Appropriations, where its supporters fear for its fate.

Should LeMunyon’s bill die, “there is nothing to stop tolling inside the Beltway,” warned Del. Timothy D. Hugo, R-Fairfax, who voted against the state toll legislation, House Bill 1069, because the prohibition was not part of it.

“Some do die along the way, and some get better with age,” responded Jones, who also reminded the committee that bills often are referred to Appropriations “because you have to pay for them.”

The battle over tolls in Northern Virginia has implications for the entire state, especially Hampton Roads, which is still smarting from a deal that Gov. Bob McDonnell cut in 2012 with a private partnership to expand and renovate the Midtown and Downtown tunnels between Norfolk and Portsmouth with escalating tolls that would have begun before construction.

The Midtown-Downtown tunnel deal was the impetus for Jones’ proposal, which generally would prohibit tolls on existing highways without General Assembly approval, but Hugo contended that the legislation would allow the same thing to happen on existing lanes of I-66 and other Northern Virginia interstates.

Jones disagreed because the pending state plan to relieve congestion on I-66 inside the Beltway would apply tolls only to drivers of single-occupant vehicles that can’t use the road now during rush hour unless they are driving hybrid vehicles that are currently exempt.

In contrast, access to the Downtown and Midtown tunnels was unrestricted and untolled prior to the state public-private partnership deal with Elizabeth River Crossings, Jones said.

Jones called his toll legislation part of a “natural progression” in reforming the state’s transportation funding system. It began with the passage of a landmark package of state and regional transportation taxes in 2013, followed the next year by legislation to require strict grading of proposed projects by need instead of political influence, and last year by sweeping reforms of the public-private transportation partnership law and the state funding formula.

mmartz@timesdispatch.com

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