N.Va. lawmakers take aim at hybrid-fee increase in transportation bill

Hours after the Virginia General Assembly concluded its annual session, two Northern Virginia lawmakers decided to try to undo what the legislature had just done to people who drive hybrid vehicles.

Del. Scott A. Surovell (D-Mount Vernon) and Sen. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria) want Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) to kill a provision in the landmark transportation-funding package that would double the annual $50 registration fee on electric vehicles and also apply it to hybrid cars and those that use alternative fuels.

After the legislature’s adjournment Saturday evening, the two lawmakers decided to start a campaign against the hybrid fee. By the end of the next day, with help from Democratic activist and blogger Ben Tribbett, they launched an online petition urging McDonnell to use his line-item veto to eliminate the fee provision.

Surovell said the legislature’s decision to boost the cost of driving a hybrid runs counter to the policies of several other states that offer incentives for the vehicles because they promise to create less pollution and reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

“It’s mind-boggling,” said Surovell, who drives a 2004 Honda Civic hybrid. “To me, it’s incredibly punitive for people making a decision that’s better for our country and better for our environment.”

Surovell said the fee also socks Northern Virginia more than other regions. Licensing statistics from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles suggest that most of the hybrids on the road are registered to Northern Virginia drivers, who bought them not only because the cars are environmentally friendly but because their drivers can scoot into High Occupancy Vehicle lanes even with only a single occupant in the car.

“I guarantee there’s a much higher percentage of hybrid vehicles in Northern Virginia than elsewhere,” Surovell said, adding that he sees regional politics at play. “If we had a pickup tax, there’d be a revolt.”

About 1,100 had signed his petition by Monday evening.

But Del. David Albo (R-Fairfax), who helped negotiate the bill’s final details, said all vehicles should pay something to maintain the commonwealth’s roads, especially because increased fuel efficiency and alternative fuels are likely to further erode the value of the per-gallon gas tax.

“I don’t think it’s fair that Dave Albo’s driving a gas-powered car and it’s paying for the electric car’s share of the road,” he said.

House and Senate confereesalso wanted to strike a deal that would still be effective years from now, Albo said. At a time when the marketplace is offering electric cars, gas-and-electric hybrids and natural-gas motors and working toward more exotic fuels, negotiators decided to.apply the registration fee to all types of alternative-fuel vehicles.

Ebbin, Surovell and Sen. J. Chapman “Chap” Petersen (D-Fairfax) were the only three Northern Virginia Democrats to vote against the transportation bill. The bipartisan measure reduces some taxes and raises others in a way that, when fully implemented, will deliver as much as $880 million a year for roads, rail and mass transit. It also raises the sales tax, creates regional funding mechanisms for Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, and diverts a bigger chunk of general fund revenue from schools, public safety and other services toward transportation. The registration fee for alternative fuel vehicles will raise nearly $67 million a year.

Virginia’s Department of Motor Vehicles says there were 91,769 alternative-fuel vehicles registered in Virginia as of January, a tiny percentage of more than 7.5 million statewide.

The agency does not have records immediately available on hybrid vehicle registration by region. But spokeswoman Sunni Brown said statistics on registration for special “Clean Fuel” license plates suggest that most such cars are in Northern Virginia.

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