Tolling bill headed for a showdown in Virginia Senate committee

2/26/2016

By Jordan Pascale

A bill that would give the General Assembly a larger role in approving new tolls and would reform the toll violation process might meet opposition in the Senate Transportation Committee on Wednesday.

The bill could alter the way Hampton Roads’ transportation funding plans unfold.

Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, said he introduced HB1069 after the Hampton Roads Transportation Accountability Commission looked at six scenarios that would put fixed tolling on nearly every water crossing. HRTAC has since backed away from the heavy tolling plan.

The bill prohibits tolling any existing highway, bridge or tunnel without approval of the General Assembly. It does allow tolling in limited circumstances, like HOV and High Occupancy Toll lanes, new lanes or new bridges and short segments between existing toll lanes. However, those tolls would have to have a free, reasonable alternative.

The bill is designed to prevent another Midtown/Downtown tunnel toll deal by giving the General Assembly final approval on tolling and ensuring administrations can’t move forward on tolling lanes unilaterally.

In 2011, then-Gov. Bob McDonnell and the Virginia Department of Transportation contracted with Elizabeth River Crossings on the 58-year tolling agreement that has been denounced by several Portsmouth community members and lawmakers as a bad deal.

“Public trust in the tolling process has been severely harmed in the aftermath of the contract related to the Elizabeth River Tunnels,” a memo on the bill states.

The bill also would build in consumer protections to the toll violation and collection process. It would:

Ensure that E-ZPass holders are emailed or texted when there is a toll violation, providing them with opportunities to add money to their accounts before they are subject to civil penalties or administrative fees.

Ensure that Virginia E-ZPass holders are not subject to toll violations due to equipment malfunctions by requiring operators to try to reprocess all E-ZPass transactions that fail to process.

Cap civil penalties and administrative fees for first-time offenders at $2,200 regardless of the number of violations. Some violators were getting tagged with bills that accumulated to hundreds or thousands of dollars for not paying $1.25 tolls.

The McAuliffe administration supports the bill, which would take away executive control over toll decision-making. Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne said he thinks giving the legislature control is a smart move.

“If this bill doesn’t pass, that’s fine, we still have authority,” Layne said. “(The bill) would limit our power, and is the right thing to do.

“It won’t impact any of what we do, but the next guy, we don’t want a repeat of what could happen (with the Midtown-Downtown deal).”

Layne said the bill has drawn political ire with some senators seeing it as creating tolls one way or another. But he said that’s not true – that the bill restricts tolling and gives the legislature oversight.

The bill would also stop funding bodies, like HRTAC, from imposing tolls on existing lanes without approval. Jones sits on that board.

A handful of tolling bills have been continued and put into an interim study on tolling. HB1069 could be either passed by the committee or continued and may be included in that study.

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