The measure was among several transportation bills approved by the General Assembly in the legislative session that wrapped up Sunday.
Other transportation-related measures passed by lawmakers include a ban on cellphone use while driving, tougher penalties for reckless driving, and allowing the use of speed cameras on some state roadways.
Virginia’s gas tax would increase 5 cents a year for two consecutive years and then be indexed to inflation. The tax increase, requested by Northam, is expected to shore up the state’s fund that pays for roads, transit and rail projects.
“This is a giant step toward a modern, sustainable transportation system in Virginia,” Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said in a statement Sunday after both chambers approved the bill. “This once-in-a-generation package will boost our economy, reduce congestion, and dramatically transform rail and transit throughout the Commonwealth. It is a win for all Virginians.”
Revenue from the tax would be used to help pay for Northam’s $3.7 billion plan to double passenger rail service over the next decade, while ensuring the state’s transportation fund remains solvent to support critical transit, including Metro, and infrastructure projects.
The legislation is a compromise between the House and Senate from a broad transportation bill proposed by Northam to yield around $1 billion over the next four years.
The gas tax would increase to 21.2 cents per gallon July 1 and to 26.2 cents per gallon a year later. In subsequent years, the rate would be adjusted annually to keep pace with inflation.
Virginia transportation officials made the case that the state’s gas tax is among the lowest in the country at 16.2 cents and that action was needed to replenish the transportation fund to keep up with infrastructure improvements.
Motorists in Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and the Route 81 corridor also pay a regional gas tax — about 2.1 percent more, or an average of 21.9 cents per gallon, which goes to fund projects in those regions.
The legislation passed Sunday extends that regional gas tax to all counties and cities in the commonwealth to boost funds for local projects.
The legislation also reduces vehicle registration fees, establishes a highway use fee for alternative-fuel and fuel-efficient vehicles, and keeps the state’s annual vehicle safety inspections, which Northam wanted to eliminate.
In Northern Virginia, it raises the local transportation tax that applies to hotel rooms to 3 percent from 2 percent and increases a real estate transfer tax that applies to home sales, changes that are expected to generate about $30 million in additional funds for Northern Virginia projects, officials said.
The proposal also establishes a Virginia Passenger Rail Authority, governed by a 15-member board, to manage the purchase and ownership of rail tracks and oversee passenger service contracts. The authority will be tasked with managing the growth in rail transportation expected in the next decade under the state’s $3.7 billion rail deal.
New safety measures
Among other initiatives approved by the General Assembly are several aimed at reducing road fatalities and injuries, chiefly addressing the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists.
Lawmakers banned the use of handheld mobile devices while driving. Northam has said he supports the measure, which would bring Virginia law in line with the District, Maryland and nearly two dozen other states.
State law already prohibits texting and emailing while driving, but phone use is otherwise not restricted, except in highway work zones. The measure approved this session includes exceptions for emergency vehicles, drivers reporting an emergency and those who are parked. Violators could be fined $125 for a first offense and $250 for a second or subsequent offense.
Meanwhile, drivers in the state could for the first time encounter speed cameras under legislation approved allowing the Virginia State Police and local law enforcement agencies to deploy the automated speed enforcement.
The proposal, passed by both chambers, would allow speed cameras within 1,000 feet of any school crossing zone or work zone and fines up to $100 for drivers traveling at speeds at least 10 miles per hour above the posted limit.
Northam officials said the governor will review the measure, but they declined to say whether he would sign it into law if it reaches his desk.
Transportation and local officials have pushed for the use of automated enforcement and other road safety initiatives they say will help reduce traffic fatalities. 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.
Falls Church City Council member David F. Snyder said the cameras would be a good tool to prevent speed-related crashes, particularly as local jurisdictions fight an upward trend in pedestrian fatalities.
“For the future, we’d like speed cameras generally,” he said.
The House and Senate approved bills that make it a misdemeanor offense when a reckless or distracted driver injures or kills pedestrians, bicyclists or other road users. The Class 1 misdemeanor carries a fine of up to $2,500 and a sentence of up to 12 months in jail.
That bill also bans drivers from crossing into a bicycle lane to pass or attempt to pass another vehicle. Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax), the lead sponsor, said he expects the bill will become law and will deter drivers from driving recklessly and protect pedestrians and cyclists.
Gas tax support
The gas tax increase ignited a heated debate on the Senate floor Sunday as lawmakers pushed for the final votes.
Sen. Bill DeSteph (R-Virginia Beach) argued the bill would hurt business and residents who are “barely making it.”
“What we forget sometimes is the residents we are impacting the most,” he said. “Those who can afford it the least . . . we are making it more expensive for them at the gas pump.”
Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), who introduced the bill in that chamber, defended the measure, saying that gas prices are as cheap as they have been in a decade and the bill will ensure low-income people can get to jobs by paying for transportation infrastructure.
Transportation officials have said the increase would raise more than $200 million for the state’s Smart Scale program, which prioritizes transportation projects. 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.
“This is an historic agreement,” House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax), who introduced the transportation bill in that chamber, said in a statement. “This transformative legislation delivers on our promise to swiftly improve the lives of working Virginians in every corner of the Commonwealth.”
Virginia joins 31 states that have raised their gas taxes or changed formulas for them in the past decade, responding to declines in revenue, according to the nonprofit Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. Twenty-two states have variable-rate taxes to guard against inflation.
The eventual 10-cent increase would cost the average family an extra $200 a year, according to the nonprofit Virginia Works, which opposed the increase and argues that it’s unlikely to accomplish the goal of fixing state roads.
“The connection between motor fuel taxes and road funding exists more on paper than in reality,” the group said. “There’s no guarantee the additional money will go to roads.”
The gas tax hike would make this legislative session “one of the worst for Virginia taxpayers in years,” said Vincent Vernuccio, a senior fellow at Virginia Works. “This deal would take hundreds of dollars out of Virginians’ family budgets every single year, especially hurting low-income households.”
Others say the tax increase is necessary to ensure there is funding for transportation needs.
Snyder, a member and former chairman of both the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission and the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, praised the action in the General Assembly as “a major step forward in addressing long-delayed transportation funding and safety issues for the commonwealth.”
“Overall, this is a real win for Northern Virginia,” Snyder said.