Frank Wagner lectures House Republicans on tolls, they stop his gas tax bill anyway
By Patrick Wilson
The Virginian Pilot
Virginia Beach Sen. Frank Wagner knew before a General Assembly subcommittee met Friday morning that his bill to create a sliding gas tax in Hampton Roads would not survive.
But he used the hearing as a chance to explain the needs of the region to his Republican colleagues on the House of Delegates side and to raise questions about their growing acceptance of tolls to pay for new highway projects.
“We’re not willing to suck it up and pay for these projects right now, so we’re going to ask ourselves, our children and our grandchildren to pay two-for-one for the cost of a project,” Wagner told a House Finance subcommittee.
“We’re going to take $2 out of the pocket – a dollar for the construction of the roads and a dollar to pay Wall Street – to pay the toll collections, to pay the interest on the bonds.”
Here’s the issue as Wagner sees it:
The General Assembly and then-Gov. Bob McDonnell raised taxes in 2013 so the state could improve and expand its lagging transportation network. The state’s gas tax was converted from a tax per gallon to a wholesale levy.
But with gas prices unexpectedly low, Hampton Roads isn’t coming close to the funding it needs to move forward with necessary projects, said Wagner, who is a member of the Hampton Roads Transportation Accountability Commission, the body that oversees money for the region.
Wagner says now is the time to raise the gas tax, while the price is low and consumers won’t feel as much of a pinch. Under his bill, SB742, the gas tax in Hampton Roads would return to a tax per gallon, set at 14 cents. When gas prices go up, the tax would drop.
“We are seeing monthly revenue collections fall from $17 or $18 million a month to $12 (million),” Wagner said.
“Our parents saw the need for an interstate highway system. And they didn’t see the need for a tolled interstate system,” he said. “And they took the bold step, under a Republican president, I add, to put a federal gas tax into place and build an interstate highway system.”
“We are trying to do the same thing in our region,” he said. “We are trying to do it without tolls.”
The bill also would raise the gas tax in Northern Virginia.
Representatives from Norfolk, Hampton, and Stafford and Prince William counties were among those backing the bill. No one spoke in opposition.
“We’re the world’s headquarters of the largest naval base,” Norfolk lobbyist Bryan Pennington said. “We have a lot of traffic that we have to move. And the problem is there just isn’t sufficient revenue being collected at the local, regional or state level – at the current pace – for us to be able to sufficiently address our congestion issues.”
Del. Bobby Orrock, R-Caroline County, asked Wagner whether Hampton Roads was willing to trade more revenue now for less in the future when gas prices rise.
“Absolutely we’re willing to take that chance,” Wagner answered. “Because in the interim we’re going to amass an amount of money necessary to get ahead of the cash flow problems.”
Although members of the subcommittee said they weren’t ready to approve the bill, they agreed to continue it so it could be studied after this year’s session.
“We are going to have to face up to it in some fashion over the course of time,” said Del. Lee Ware, R-Powhatan County.
Meanwhile, legislation by Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, to create a state policy on tolls has passed the House and is scheduled to be heard in the Senate Transportation Committee next week.