Senate panel drops proposed state policy on tolls, but battle moves to budget

3/2/2016

A Senate committee has eliminated a proposed state policy on tolling existing highways, but the battle will continue in deliberations over the pending two-year state budget.

The Senate Transportation Committee approved House Bill 1069, sponsored by Del. S. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, but the measure no longer sets policy on where tolls can be imposed or requires the state to give up a current federal option to place tolls on existing interstates, including I-95 south of Fredericksburg.

The revised bill includes consumer protections for drivers charged with toll violations, including electronic notification of violations, appeals, and limits on penalties and fines. It also incorporates provisions of House Bill 1070, proposed by Jones, that would allow Virginia to reach reciprocity agreements with other states to collect an estimated $21 million in unpaid tolls by out-of-state drivers.

“We tried to move the policy decisions out of this and make it consumer friendly,” said Sen. William R. DeSteph Jr., R-Virginia Beach.

But Jones, who is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, made clear that he will continue to push for limits on existing state authority to impose tolls without jeopardizing public-private transportation agreements that depend on them.

“We will continue to look at the statewide tolling policy as the session continues,” he told the panel.

After the meeting, Jones made clear, “I have other options in the budget.”

Jones included the provisions of the tolling policy in the budget adopted last week by the House of Delegates. He also could choose to seek a conference committee to reconcile the differences between the bills the House and the Senate adopted.

“There are several options that are available,” he said.

Secretary of Transportation Aubrey L. Layne Jr. said the administration has pledged to relinquish its federal option to place tolls on existing interstates, as Gov. Bob McDonnell proposed four years ago on I-95 in Southside.

Layne said the administration supported the original legislation, even though it would diminish current state tolling authority, so the public “understands what can be tolled, what can’t be tolled, and under what conditions.”

The bill, as adopted by the House and included in the budget, would prohibit tolling of existing highways without General Assembly approval except in certain cases, such as converting high-occupancy vehicle lanes to toll lanes on I-66 in Northern Virginia and I-64 in Hampton Roads, as well as highways that opened with tolls, such as Pocahontas Parkway in the Richmond area.

It would specifically prohibit tolling of I-95 south of Fredericksburg or I-81, as proposed more than a decade ago.

But Jones and Layne strongly opposed an attempt by DeSteph and other committee members to change the bill to require all transportation projects involving tolls to be approved by the legislature. They said that would destroy their ability to negotiate public-private transportation agreements to save state money on major highway construction projects, such as plans to relieve congestion on I-66.

“It would effectively kill the (public-private partnership) process in Virginia,” Jones said.

Some committee members also opposed DeSteph’s proposal to require all projects involving tolls to have General Assembly approval.

“I don’t know if I could get 140 votes on whether the sky is blue in this legislature,” said Sen. David W. Marsden, D-Fairfax. “This is a bad road to go down.”

Senate Transportation Chairman Charles W. “Bill” Carrico Sr., R-Grayson, said the committee earlier had killed a Senate toll policy bill because the panel wanted the issues studied for a year by a joint subcommittee on transportation accountability.

“My concern is I want time to look at this,” Carrico said, before taking a long break to let DeSteph and Jones negotiate the compromise the committee ultimately approved.

mmartz@timesdispatch.com

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