Photo by Virginia Guard Public Affairs on Flickr.
Virginia’s General Assembly session has reached its halfway point. Tonight is “crossover,” when bills passed by one chamber move to the other. Here’s the latest on the bills we’ve been following this season.
Mixed news on anti-transit bills
Unfortunately, bills mandating highway-favoring “congestion metrics” are still alive. Under these bills, when selecting new projects to build, Virginia officials would effectively have to ignore the many benefits of transit for moving more people and building strong communities, and focus solely on how a project affects the capacity of existing highways to carry cars.
HB1915/SB1314 would force Northern Virginia officials to ignore the benefits of transit for moving more people and building strong communities. While a substitute version of SB1314 with better language passed the Senate, companion bill HB1915 passed the House with its troubling language intact.
Meanwhile, lawmakers have modified HB1470, which specifically directs officials to model transit according to “congestion reduction” criteria, to delay its effective date until July 2016. Northern Virginia jurisdictions are removing their opposition to HB1470 because they think it will be possible to fix traffic modeling software to fairly show the benefits of transit investments.
A House committee tabled a bill to merge the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, which plans and funds Northern Virginia transit, into the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, a broader agency (HB2170). Combining the two agencies would have reduced NVTC’s laser-focus on transit investment and potentially reduced the voting power of transit-dependent jurisdictions to control transit decision-making, so the tabling is a win for transit.
Good news: transit funding and oversight
Transportation omnibus bill HB1887 has passed the House and is now before the Senate Transportation Committee. Among other reforms, the bill starts to plug a huge hole in transit capital funding, which was created when lawmakers didn’t adequately fund transit as part of the 2013 transportation tax increase.
Plugging this hole is critical: unless addressed, Virginia’s transit capital funding would drop 62% in the next two to three years. The omnibus bill reprograms $40 million annually from highways and freight rail to transit. That’s only a partial win, since the hole in transit funding is close to $100 million, but it’s better than nothing. By comparison, individual highway interchanges frequently cost over $40 million each.
The omnibus bill also changes the formula VDOT uses to distribute highway construction funds, to give local jurisdictions more opportunities to apply for road funding.
Elsewhere, the bill reforming the Public Private Transportation Act (PPTA), HB1886, would establishing new oversight and accountability for public-private partnerships in transportation projects: an important priority following debacles like Hampton Roads’ Route 460 project, which wasted $300 million in taxpayer funds without having permits in hand.
Bicycling and pedestrian bills
SB781, which would make it legal for cars to cross the double yellow line to pass bicyclists with the required three foot safety distance, and which has mixed safety implications for cyclists, has passed in the Senate and is headed to the House.
SB882, the pro-cyclist dooring bill, has also passed the Senate and is headed to the House.
An amended HB1402, which would make sure urban jurisdictions don’t lose state road maintenance funding if they implement road diets with bike improvements on local streets, passed the House and is headed to the Senate. But its Senate companion SB952, didn’t make it out of committee, so the Senate will consider the House version.
Two other bills have been tabled and won’t move forward this session: HB1746, the “mandatory sidepath” bill prohibiting riding on the road when a sidepath is available (opposed by the cycling community), and SB1279 (supported by a range of safety advocates), which would have banned use of any personal communications device while driving, unless that device is hands-free or the vehicle is stopped.
Land use and conservation
As expected, Virginia’s very successful Land Preservation Tax Credit program is facing significant cuts, even though it has effectively helped Virginians to voluntarily conserve tens of thousands of acres in farms and forests, and helped communities reduce sprawl and the costs of public infrastructure.
The bills in question, SB1019 and HB1828, passed their respective houses and have crossed over. They reduce total state tax credits available to landowners placing conservation easements on their land from $100 million to $75 million per year, and restrict the amount of annual credit that each landowner can claim.
Opponents of land conservation have pushed legislation designed to undermine conservation easements, impacting the ability of private landowners to conserve their land. But there is good news to report: HB1488, which would have created a number of obstacles to the conservation easement program, was cut back to simply establishing an alternative dispute resolution mechanism, and HB1571, which would have threatened public purchase of development rights programs, was pulled by the patron.
This year’s Virginia General Assembly session wraps up on Saturday, February 28.