House panel approves McDonnell’s transportation plan

January 30, 2013

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s transportation plan cleared its first hurdle in a committee vote Wednesday, gaining support from some Democrats. But the measure still faces resistance as lawmakers push toward final approval in the remaining weeks of the General Assembly.

The House of Delegates’ Finance Committee approved the measure by a vote of 14 to 8 after only an hour-long debate, averting the showdown many were expecting in the bill’s legislative debut. Four Democrats backed the effort.

“It’s a good first couple of steps,” said Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), sponsor of the House version of the bill. “We’ve always known the final bill is going to be what comes out in conference committee. I’m not sure what that’ll look like.”

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.

His plan also would increase vehicle-registration fees and add 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.

“We all recognize that the time is now to improve transportation in Virginia,” said McDonnell, who has met with lawmakers from both parties privately and at the Capitol. “The can has been kicked for too long.”

The bill passed Wednesday 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.

Under the final amendment, the Department of Transportation would 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.

Wednesday’s vote for the GOP-led effort included support from Del. Mark L. Keam (D-Fairfax), Del. Lynwood W. Lewis Jr. (D-Accomack), Del. Joseph P. Johnson Jr. (D-Washington) and Del. Matthew James (D-Portsmouth).

“It was a tough vote,” James said. “I think at some point you have to put the state above your own region, and when we look at our state, we need to have a start. I consider the bill a start. Hopefully, it’ll improve over time.”

Five Republicans voted against the measure: Del. Ben L. Cline (Rockbridge), Del. Mark L. Cole (Spotsylvania), Del. Kathy J. Byron (Bedford), Del. Robert G. Marshall (Prince William) and Del. R. Lee Ware Jr. (R-Powhat­an).

“The concerns that I raised when the governor announced the plan at the beginning of session have not been addressed, so I’m sorry, I could not vote for the bill,” said Cline, who is chairman of the Conservative Caucus. “I am always hopeful that my concerns can be addressed.”

Cline has expressed concern that the legislation increases taxes, imposes excessive fees and does not secure long-term transportation funding.

The measure must still get through the Senate Finance Committee, which is expected to take up the bill Thursday.

The plan then faces a full vote in both chambers before the Senate and House of Delegates hash out the details in conference committee. A compromise plan would require the approval of the General Assembly and the governor’s signature to become law.

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