House panel advances statewide policy on tolling

2/2/2016

A proposed statewide policy on tolling is getting more political attention for its exceptions than its rule of no new tolls on existing Virginia highways without General Assembly approval.

The legislation advanced on Tuesday through a House of Delegates subcommittee clogged with dozens of bills on tolling. Many of them are aimed at stopping tolls that would be allowed by the bill’s exceptions — notably pending projects to expand Interstate 66 outside of the Capital Beltway and relieve congestion on the interstate inside the Beltway without immediately widening the roadway.

The legislation, House Bill 1069, is carried by House Appropriations Chairman S. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, with the support of Gov. Terry McAuliffe, whose administration has introduced an almost identical measure in the Senate that remains under subcommittee review for action on Monday.

The subcommittee also approved a companion bill, House Bill 1070, on reciprocal enforcement of toll collection by Virginia and other states that use electronic toll systems.

“This would overlay a statewide policy in how we will deal with tolling in the commonwealth,” Jones told the House Transportation subcommittee.

The legislation would maintain a ban on new tolls being imposed on Interstate 95 south of Fredericksburg or on Interstate 81 in western Virginia, where former governors have pitched the idea under a federal pilot program from which McAuliffe intends to withdraw.

“The presumption under the bill is no tolling without General Assembly approval,” said Del. Gregory D. Habeeb, R-Salem, chairman of the Transportation subcommittee on tolling.

However, the legislation’s exceptions include roads that open with tolls, such as Pocahontas Parkway did in 2002 over the James River between Henrico and Chesterfield counties.

It also would allow tolls on existing travel lanes, such as I-66 or I-64 in Hampton Roads, that currently restrict rush-hour traffic to vehicles that carry more than one person.

The idea is to allow drivers who can’t use the highways now the opportunity to pay tolls on express lanes, while providing the option of free access to lanes with slower traffic.

The subcommittee killed a half-dozen bills that Jones and administration officials said would have crippled a pending public-private partnership deal to expand I-66 outside of the Beltway, the highest ranked transportation priority in Virginia under a new system for allocating transportation funds.

They say the project depends on efforts to reduce congestion on the rush hour-restricted highway inside of the Beltway, including tolls on single-occupancy vehicles that can’t legally use the road now.

“There is no doubt in my mind that if we prohibit tolling inside the Beltway, it would have an impact on the ability of the project to go forward,” said Jones, whose budget-writing committee also may review toll legislation approved by the transportation panel.

The McAuliffe administration is still negotiating with one toll opponent, Del. James M. LeMunyon, R-Fairfax, who introduced the first bill of the legislative session to prohibit tolling of I-66 inside the Beltway. The subcommittee expects to consider a possible substitute proposal and related legislation on Thursday.

LeMunyon wants to require any use of toll revenue to widen a 4-mile portion of the highway that state officials say would cost $122 million that would have to come from other projects in the proposed new six-year transportation plan for the state.

A similar battle is underway in the Senate, where a bipartisan coalition of Northern Virginia senators said the 4-mile segment from West Falls Church to Ballston in Arlington County is the most “critical stretch of pavement in Virginia in terms of alleviating regional congestion.”

Widening the section of I-66 first “would also demonstrate to our constituents and other drivers that VDOT is actually trying to improve their travel experience, not just soaking them for increased toll dollars,” said Sen. J. Chapman “Chap” Petersen, D-Fairfax City, in a letter to Transportation Secretary Aubrey L. Layne Jr. that was signed by four other senators and one delegate.

However, Layne told a Senate Transportation subcommittee on Monday that widening the road now would be less effective than other toll-financed measures, such as expanded use of mass transit to reduce congestion on I-66 in the inner Northern Virginia suburbs, which oppose construction of new lanes.

“Tolling and additional transit are the real juice in this deal,” the secretary said.

The widening project would be triggered five years later, after the state evaluates the effectiveness of the other measures to reduce congestion. “Our plan did call for widening inside the Beltway,” he said Tuesday.

The politics of the issue were apparent at Tuesday’s House subcommittee meeting, where Del. Robert G. Marshall, R-Prince William, displayed a “Stop $17 Tolls on I-66” sign that he said House Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford, had paid to produce during last fall’s hard-fought legislative elections.

“The concern of the speaker, as well as both Republican and Democratic candidates in Northern Virginia last fall, was that the administration would impose tolls on I-66 inside the Beltway without adding new lane capacity,” said Matt Moran, a spokesman for Howell.

“The current legislation being considered is consistent with those concerns. There have been productive conversations between the Speaker, Chairman Jones, Del. LeMunyon, the administration and other stakeholders. The speaker is confident that at the end of the day, we will have an agreement that will satisfy everyone.”

Speakers against Jones’ omnibus toll bill included Marshall’s wife, Cathy, who said the proposed I-66 project would “affect millions of people for the rest of their lives in Northern Virginia.”

The subcommittee killed three of Marshall’s bills, but he has three others pending in another committee to allow Northern Virginians to vote on whether to allow tolling on I-66, both inside and outside of the Beltway.

The McAuliffe administration is negotiating with three private vendors for a possible public-private partnership to widen a 22.5-mile stretch of I-66 outside of the Beltway that would convert existing high-occupancy vehicle lanes to tolled express lanes during peak traffic times.

Layne said the financing and effectiveness of the proposed $2.1 billion project depends on the ability of drivers to continue on I-66 inside of the Beltway by allowing them to pay a variably-priced toll even if there is only one person in the vehicle.