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Legislators push for say on tolls

BY CHELYEN DAVIS

RICHMOND—It’s possible that the only people in Virginia who like Gov. Bob McDonnell’s plan to put a tollbooth on Interstate 95 are in his administration.

His plan has generated an outcry from many who live around the proposed tollbooth in Sussex County, as well as those farther up I–95 who don’t want toll plazas in their localities either.

But only McDonnell has authority over the proposed tollbooth, because under state law he can apply for federal permission to toll existing interstate roads—except for I–81—without legislative approval.

Several legislators have filed bills to change that.

Some, like Mechanicsville Republican Del. Chris Peace’s bill, would require legislative approval to toll existing interstate highways, apart from HOT and HOV lanes or existing toll roads.

Del. Roslyn Tyler, D–Jarratt, introduced a bill that bars tolling on I–95 specifically without legislative permission.

Del. Lionel Spruill, D–Chesapeake, would require assembly approval to toll any interstate, primary or secondary road.

Sen. Don McEachin, D–Richmond, would require legislative approval to toll interstates except HOT lanes.

Other bills tie tolling into broader transportation proposals or offer tax credits to those who pay tolls.

Sen. John Watkins, R–Powhatan, said tolls are “a very ineffective way of producing the necessary revenue stream to support roads in Virginia.” He has proposed his own transportation bill, of which tolling authority is only a part.

Tolling one highway, Watkins said, doesn’t help pay for all the other roads statewide that need upkeep.

Spruill said he put in his bill because he considers a toll a tax, and his constituents asked him why legislators don’t have control over tolls the way they do taxes.

Tyler said she filed her bill because the proposed Emporia tollbooth is in her district.

“This is an economically depressed area,” she said, citing the area’s 8.5 percent unemployment. I-95 is local residents’ main road to access health care, shopping, recreation and college.

“A $4 toll each way is going to drastically impact a family,” Tyler said. “Because it has an impact in our area we should have a vote.”

Peace said other leaders in the “urban crescent” region of Virginia support his bill and oppose tolling I–95.

Tolling existing roads, he said, is “bad practice,” and the proposed toll on 95 won’t produce enough revenue to make a dent in the maintenance and expansion needs.

Peace and other legislators say tolling existing roads is different from tolling new roads. Many who generally support tolling new roads have expressed concerns with tolling existing roads.

On principle, Peace said, the General Assembly has the authority to raise revenue for transportation, and that should include authority over tolls.

McDonnell has so far been undeterred by opposition to tolls from those who live around Sussex. He has said the assembly has tied his hands with regard to new revenue for transportation, and that “a reasonable use of tolls is a proper way to build transportation infrastructure.”

Peace said tolls should be a part of the broader conversation about transportation funding.

Peace suggested the tolling bills and McDonnell’s transportation plan might get tied together. He said he can’t vote to trade the gas tax for a higher sales tax—as McDonnell has proposed—without a commitment from McDonnell to back off on tolls.

“I’m not saying there’s a bargain for exchange,” Peace said. But, he added, that discussion must be had for central Virginia lawmakers to consider McDonnell’s transportation funding bill.

“So far the governor is unwilling” to discuss tolls, Peace said. “He’s keeping it in his back pocket for now, and we need to have it on the table.”

Chelyen Davis: 804/343-2245

cdavis@freelancestar.com

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