Va. senators swallow hard, hoping for compromise on transportation

January 31, 2013

RICHMOND — Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s transportation plan cleared the Senate Finance committee on Thursday, with some senators hoping a compromise could be reached this session.

The committee passed an amended version of the plan by a 10 to 5 partisan vote that allows for some fee and tax exemptions. While other plans were discussed, those took a backseat to the one sponsored by Sen. Stephen D. Newman (R-Lynchburg) and backed by the administration. A House panel approved its plan on Wednesday.

The strategy in both panels this week has been similar: rally behind a measure now that can be tweaked later, rather than halt the process in committee and derail the issue for the year.

“I very much want to support something,” said Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (R-Fauquier) ahead of the vote. “I very much want to get something to the Senate floor.”

Senate Democrats on the panel, united in opposition to the bill, were less optimistic about proceeding. “This is kind of like Mr. Lincoln saying, ‘Other than that, the play was pretty good,’ ” said Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax). “The work we’re going to end up doing on the floor . . . probably should’ve been done here. This bill is going nowhere.”

McDonnell (R) has proposed eliminating the gas tax and increasing the state sales tax from 5 percent to 5.8 percent, which he said would raise an estimated $3.1 billion over five years to pay for road, transit and rail projects in the commonwealth. The plan also increases vehicle-registration fees and adds an annual $100 charge for drivers of alternative-fuel cars, and it looks to pending federal legislation in Congress that could pump additional millions into state coffers from the collection of Internet sales taxes.

Like the House version of the bill approved Wednesday, the Senate version approved with three amendments. One clarified that only hybrids and electric cars would be subject to the proposed $100 alternative-fuel vehicle fee, not cars using natural gas. Another change would ensure that passenger vehicles using diesel fuel would be eligible for a refund on the diesel fuel tax. The third requires the Department of Transportation to study whether the new transportation plan would ease or eliminate the need to place tolls on Interstate 95. The amendment would prohibit tolls on the highway until the study is completed.

Both measures are headed to a full floor vote, expected next week. The proposal will likely undergo more changes before a final vote in the General Assembly, which is scheduled to end Feb. 23.

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