Gov. Ralph Northam has more in mind for transportation than raising taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel. Much more.
Legislation introduced for the governor by House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn and Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, both Democrats from Fairfax County, also would:
- make failure to wear a seat belt a primary traffic offense, meaning a driver could be cited for that alone;
- prohibit hand-held cellphones for drivers and open containers of alcohol for passengers;
- allow video monitoring and fines for motorists who drive 10 miles or more above the speed limit on major roads, and let localities lower the speed limit below 25 miles per hour in certain areas.
"The bill tries to take discreet steps to improve safety on our roadways," Deputy Secretary of Transportation Nick Donohue told the Commonwealth Transportation Board in a briefing on Tuesday about House Bill 1414 and Senate Bill 890.
The policies on mandatory seat belt use, handheld communication devices and open containers of alcohol would take effect on July 1, 2021, giving the state a year to train law enforcement and educate the public. A new advisory council would guide the efforts, with representation by police chiefs and the Virginia State Police, organizations for social equity and justice, traffic safety experts and the DRIVE SMART Virginia program.
Two other administration bills — Senate Bill 907, proposed by Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, and House Bill 1439, sponsored by Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk —would adopt the same policies, as well as eliminate the requirement for annual vehicle maintenance inspections. Northam has proposed to end the inspections as part of his proposed two-year budget.
Transportation is emerging as one of the governor's biggest policy initiatives in the new General Assembly, both for funding improvements to the state's highway, rail and transit systems, as well as policy to promote highway safety and reverse an alarming surge in traffic fatalities in Virginia over the last five years.
"This legislation will reduce traffic congestion, transform Virginia’s outdated passenger rail system and make our roads safer," said Jake Rubenstein, a spokesman for Filler-Corn. "The speaker is proud to lead on this effort that delivers on the promise we made to voters last fall — to take swift, decisive action that improves Virginians’ quality of life.”
Northam is trying to build on major transportation policy victories in his first two years as governor, including dedicated maintenance funding for the Washington Metro transit system, $2.1 billion to improve Interstate 81 in western Virginia, and an agreement with Maryland to replace the American Legion Bridge on the Capital Beltway.
The omnibus transportation bills carried by Filler-Corn and Saslaw would carry out a new $3.7 billion deal with CSX Corp. and Amtrak that would radically boost passenger rail service between Washington and Richmond, as well as other Virginia cities by building a new rail crossing of the Potomac River for passenger trains at Long Bridge.
The new bridge would allow Virginia to expand passenger rail service to almost hourly trains between Richmond and Washington in 10 years, as well as boost daily and weekend regional commuter rail service in Northern Virginia and add trains to Norfolk and Newport News.
"To expand rail capacity in Virginia, we have to deal with that bridge," Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine said in the first meeting of the House Transportation Committee chaired by Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond.
The legislation would create a Virginia Passenger Rail Authority to oversee state investments to carry out the deal and manage more than 350 miles of railroad right-of-way and 225 miles of track the state would own under agreements it expects to sign with CSX later this year.
The transaction would give the state its first ownership of rail assets in the Interstate 95 corridor since it sold a controlling share of the former Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac railroad in 1992.
The bills also would authorize the sale of bonds backed by the Transportation Trust Fund to help pay the state's share of the cost by using tolls collected on Interstate 66 inside the Capital Beltway, and raise an additional $45 million for the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority to replace money diverted for the Metro funding package in 2018.
"We do not believe these bonds impact the debt capacity of the commonwealth," Donohue said.
The legislation also would allow bond sales for improvements to I-81, while creating an Interstate Operations and Enhancement Program to oversee use of an estimated $130 million for other interstates, including I-95 and I-64, that would be generated from the funding package adopted last year.
It would create a Transit Incentive Program to improve transit service in Richmond, Hampton Roads and other urban areas with more than 200,000 residents to expand bus service and provide help with fares for low-income riders.
The legislation would consolidate the matrix of state funds that have been created since 1986 under one Commonwealth Transportation Fund while ensuring that all existing programs receive no less funding. One of those funds would be the Robert O. Norris Bridge and Statewide Special Structure Program, which would receive an increasing share of state money to replace or repair dozens of major highway structures such as the namesake bridge over the Rappahannock River.
The heart of the legislation is a plan to raise state taxes on gasoline by 4 cents a gallon for each of the next three years. The boost would raise the state's current tax - about 22 cents per gallon on a weighted average that would include regional taxes - to just under the national average.
Almost as important, the bill would tie motor fuel taxes to inflation instead of wholesale fuel prices, which have plummeted from an average of $3.17 per gallon in 2013 when the state adopted its last major transportation funding bill to $1.73 per gallon last year. It also would convert regional taxes from 2.1% on the wholesale price of fuel to 7.6 cents per gallon for gasoline and 7.7 cents per gallon for diesel.
"We thought we had tied our fuel tax to a growing source," Donohue said. "It turns out we had not."
Highway use fee
The bill also would create a highway-use fee for fuel-efficient and alternative fuel vehicles so their owners would pay their share of the cost of maintaining the state's transportation systems to make up for what they wouldn't pay in fuel taxes. Alternatively, the bill would test the use of vehicle miles traveled for an annual fee, which owners of fuel efficient vehicles could choose to pay instead of the user fee.
At the same time, Northam has proposed to cut annual vehicle registration fees in half - from $40 to $20 for the typical car - with the idea of shifting more of the cost to out-of-state drivers who use Virginia roads. "Registration fees are only paid by Virginians - there's no link to use of roads," Donohue said.
Finally, the legislation would create the Virginia Highway Safety Improvement Program with the goal of reducing highway deaths by 15% to 20%, or 120 to 160 people a year, through a five-year strategy.
"There is a lot in this bill," Trip Pollard, attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said of the 86-page document. "It's massive."