Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) is proposing a 4-cent increase in the state’s gas tax to raise money to jump-start his $3.7 billion landmark rail plan and shore up a fund used to pay for roads, transit and rail projects.

The gas tax increase, which is expected to yield around $1 billion over the next four years, is included as part of a broad transportation bill Northam announced Monday. The proposal was endorsed by two Democratic leaders in the General Assembly, boosting its prospects in the body that flipped blue in November.

The money would be used to help pay for Northam’s plan to double passenger rail service over the next decade and new efforts to lower traffic fatalities on state highways, while ensuring the state’s transportation fund remains solvent to support critical transit, including Metro, and infrastructure projects.

“Our legislation will make our roads safer. It will put in place sustainable streamlined transportation funding, it will improve transit, it will help fix our roads and bridges, and expand passenger and commuter rail service throughout Virginia,” Northam said at a news conference Monday morning, surrounded by supporters and transit and transportation advocates.

Northam’s proposal would raise the gas tax by 4 cents a year for three years, with subsequent increases to keep pace with inflation.

Several proposals to raise the gas tax in recent years have failed. In 2013, the state lowered the tax, while raising the sales tax and motor vehicle sales tax. That year, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) proposed eliminating the gas tax altogether.

“To my knowledge, the last time the statewide gas tax was raised was 1986,” Deputy Transportation Secretary Nick Donohue said.

But there has been a broad consensus among Democrats in the General Assembly that something needs to be done to replenish the state’s transportation fund, and the party assuming control in November for the first time in a generation presented an opportunity to address the long-standing concern, leaders said.

“We get all of this done, it’s probably going to be the most successful . . . package we have had in almost 40 years,” said Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), who introduced the bill in the Senate.

“This is desperately needed. You have seen the conditions of the roads,” Saslaw said. “I can’t tell you enough times how badly this is needed.”

“In November, Virginians overwhelmingly demanded we take swift, decisive action to move our Commonwealth forward,” said House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax), who introduced the transportation bill in the chamber. “We have a unique opportunity to make our roads safer and less congested while transforming passenger and commuter rail in the Commonwealth. And, all of us here, working with the governor, are excited to seize this opportunity.”

Though Virginians are driving more, gas tax revenue has been on the decline, due in part to lower fuel prices and more fuel-efficient vehicles. The fund is projected to fall below $500 million by 2030 if no action is taken, according to an analysis by the firm KPMG.

Virginia Transportation Secretary Shannon Valentine said doing nothing isn’t an option. The money is needed to repair and replace aging infrastructure and other transportation projects, especially with less money coming from the federal government. Virginia would join 31 states that have raised or reformed their gas tax formulas in the past decade, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. And 22 states have variable-rate taxes to guard against inflation.

“We are all looking at how to make transportation funding sustainable,” Valentine said.

New Rail Authority proposed

Northam’s bill would also establish a Virginia Passenger Rail Authority and authorize the sale of bonds backed by toll revenue collected on Interstate 66 inside the Capital Beltway.

The new authority would manage the purchase and ownership of rail tracks and oversee passenger service contracts. It would also manage the growth in rail transportation expected in the next decade under the state’s deal with CSX that was announced last month.

The authority will “promote, sustain, and expand the availability of passenger and commuter rail service in the Commonwealth” according to bill.

Danny Plaugher, executive director of Virginians for High Speed Rail applauded Northam’s proposal, and the group is urging lawmakers to support it, saying it is critical to the expansion of rail projects and other multimodal transportation services in the state.

“Understanding that we can no longer simply pave our way out of traffic, this legislation invests significant new resources in passenger rail and mass transit,” Plaugher said.

The bill also includes several initiatives officials say are aimed at reducing traffic fatalities, including allowing the expanded use of speed cameras. According to state data, 811 people were killed in crashes statewide in 2019, up about 15 percent from five years ago.

Allowing speed cameras would be a significant shift for Virginia, which has been slow to adopt the technology long in use in the District, Maryland and elsewhere. Lawmakers last year approved a narrow measure allowing Virginia State Police troopers to use cameras in highway work zones, however, Northam did not sign the legislation.

Localities would also have the authority to reduce speed limits below 25 mph in commercial and residential districts.

The bill would ban the use of handheld cellphones and other mobile devices while driving, making the offense punishable with a fine of $125 for a first offense and $250 for a second and subsequent offense.

And the legislation would make failure to wear a seat belt a primary offense, meaning law enforcement could pull over a driver for that violation alone.

“We are trying to put in place measures that we know are going to save lives,” said Valentine, noting that half of those killed in crashes in the state are not wearing a seat belt. “If we are able to implement the safety package in this bill, it is forecast to save at least 120 lives … and my hope is that it is far more than that.”

Officials said the changes would take effect a year from the bill’s implementation to allow for a public education campaign.

Support for gas tax hike

Virginia’s gas tax is among the lowest in the country at 16.2 cents, though motorists in Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and the Route 81 corridor pay 2.1 percent more, or an average of 21.9 cents per gallon, which goes to fund projects in those respective regions.

If passed, the 4 cents-per-gallon hike would start in July, Northam administration officials said.

The increase would raise more than $200 million for the state’s Smart Scale program, which prioritizes transportation projects, officials said. It would also provide money to help cover Virginia’s share of funding for Metro and help fund major rehabilitation of bridges and highways expected to reach the end of their life span in the next decade, officials said.

By 2024, rail funding would increase by $18.5 million and public transit would receive $125 million more a year in funding, according to estimates.

“This is a necessary updating of funding for our transportation,” said David Snyder, a member — and former chairman — of both the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission and Northern Virginia Transportation Authority.

The bill would restore millions of dollars for roads and transit that was taken from the Authority in 2018 to help pay for Virginia’s share of the Metro dedicated funding agreement. The Authority estimates that it lost about $102 million a year in the Metro deal. Restoring the funding would allow several Northern Virginia projects to move forward, including the widening of Route 28 in Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties.

Snyder said the money could also help local bus systems that have had budget challenges in recent years, in part because of dwindling revenue, and speed projects such the bus rapid transit system planned for Route 7.

The proposal also includes a new transit incentive program designed to increase ridership in urban regions of the state. The program, officials said, would establish regional bus lines, integrate fare payment systems and pay for the construction of bus-only lanes. Funding also would be set aside to subsidize transit fares for low-income residents.

“We are trying to make sure that we’re reducing barriers for transit use,” Donohue said.