Photo by Mrs. Gemstone on Flickr.

As the Virginia legislative session continues, lawmakers in Richmond have agreed to remove the hybrid car tax, and successfully defeated an attempt to take away Northern Virginia’s ability to plan and fund its own transportation projects. But several destructive bills, including one that could force the state to widen I-66 in Arlington, are still on the table.

Hybrid car tax poised for repeal

Several lawmakers introduced bills to repeal a tax on the sale of hybrid cars, which the state passed last year. One such bill has now passed both houses and Governor Terry McAuliffe says he will sign it.

The original bill’s justification was to make sure that hybrid car owners who use less gas, and thus pay less in gas taxes, still contribute to maintaining state roads. But its critics contend that the $64 tax is an inefficient way to make up for the lost revenue and unfairly punished hybrid drivers who are helping the environment by using less gas.

Attempts to limit Northern Virginia’s choices narrow

Legislators have tabled several bills that sought to restrict the power of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA), which selects and funds transportation projects in that area. Instead, Republicans want Richmond to decide what gets built there, especially if it involves widening and building new highways.

Meanwhile, House Bill 658, sponsored by David LaRock (R-Sterling), would limit “transit, rail, and public transportation” to get at most 25% of Northern Virgnia’s transportation funds. Not only is that an arbitrary standard, but it ignores how transit is already moving people and reducing highway congestion.

This proposal could prevent good transit projects from happening. If the region wants to ramp up a major new Metrorail, light rail, streetcar, or bus rapid transit project and spend more in one year than another, this cap would severely limit that ability. Besides, Northern Virginia should be able to choose how much to spend on different transportation priorities as it sees fit.

Bill would rate transportation projects on “congestion reduction”

Meanwhile, the legislature is still debating HB 2, which would require that the state pick transportation projects based on how much they are “expected to provide the greatest congestion reduction relative to cost.” This relies on defining congestion solely as how many cars can move through an area, which automatically puts public transit at a disadvantage.

By its very nature, transit doesn’t involve moving cars, and often requires a higher initial investment than a road project of comparable size. This proposal also ignores the ancillary benefits of transit, like lower pollution and the ability to tie transportation to land use, which can reduce overall car trips and conserve land. 

“Study” bills push wasteful highway projects

A few bills require the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) to conduct studies of highway projects their authors really want to see built. HB 426, by Jim LeMunyon (R-Chantilly) demands a study of adding extra lanes (that aren’t subject to HOV restrictions) on I-66 inside the Beltway in Arlington and Falls Church.

The original bill would have forced the I-66 widening to be part of VDOT’s capital plan. LeMunyon changed it to only require a study, which means that even if it passes, it wouldn’t necessarily mean the project happens. However, once a study gets finished, it’s a lot easier for a sympathetic future administration to turn it into reality, and gives project supporters something concrete to push for.

The language doesn’t allow VDOT to consider any sort of transit alternative to widening the highway, even though there is a rapid transit option, the Orange Line, literally running down the middle. It already assumes that the only solution for I-66 is more lanes for cars. Besides, VDOT already studied widening I-66, and the results show that general purpose lanes are not effective, while HOV, managed toll lanes and express bus perform better. 

Another bill, HB 1244 by Thomas Rust (R-Fairfax) would push forward on studies to build an Outer Beltway with new bridges over the Potomac outside the Beltway. This would stimulate more car-dependent sprawl on what is now rural land at the region’s edge.

Maryland opposes the idea, in order to protect its rural land in Montgomery’s Agricultural Reserve and Charles County in southern Maryland. It instead wants to add capacity, for transit or cars, on the American Legion Bridge between Potomac and McLean, and is widening the Route 301 Henry Nice Bridge south of Washington. Despite this, former Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton initiated a study about potential new bridge locations. HB 1244 would make VDOT take the results of that study and recommend specific options.

Things are still very busy in Richmond. We are seeing the effects of local debates regarding Northern Virginia’s transportation future reverberate at the state capitol just as hotly as they were contested back home. Bills rise and fall very quickly in the Virginia legislature, and we will keep you up to date on what is happening.