AP and staff reports
RICHMOND — The Virginia General Assembly has approved increasing truck registration fees and regional gas tax increases to pay for improvements to Interstate 81.
Both the House and the Senate voted Wednesday to accept amendments proposed by Gov. Ralph Northam that included the tax and fee increases.
Supporters said the increases would raise prices on gas in areas around I-81 by about 7 cents a gallon. They said the extra money raised would pay for urgently needed upgrades to the highway to improve safety and traffic flow. The highway is a major artery that is vital to the state’s economy, stretching 325 miles along the western part of the state and heavily trafficked by tractor-trailers.
“This is something that is going to benefit the whole state,” said Republican Sen. Bill Carrico.
Opponents said the legislature was rushing through a tax hike without sufficient public input.
“This is a major tax increase bill — let’s just call it what it is,” said Republican Del. Dave LaRock.
There are more than 2,000 crashes on the road each year, with more than a quarter involving heavy trucks. There are about 45 major crashes a year that take more than four hours to clear.
A proposal to put tolls on the highway failed earlier this year.
“In sum total, this will find a funding source,” Del. Steve Landes, R-Weyers Cave, said of Northam’s amendments.
Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt, called for supporting the governor’s recommendation “in its entirety.”
“It’s a ‘50s-era highway,” Austin said. “The Virginia Truckers Association agreed with the bill and this would free up a lot of statewide funding.”
Del. Tony Wilt, R-Broadway, took to Twitter to voice his opinion, saying “Citizens have been clear to me, they wanted something done this year. Even though we had to take
it to “overtime,” I’m glad we could deliver. #Make81Safe #Fix81Now.”
Northam’s proposed tax increase is one of several amendments and vetoes lawmakers were voting on Wednesday. Other proposals included a hand-held cellphone ban for drivers and eliminating the suspension of driver’s licenses for motorists with unpaid court fines and costs.
The Democratic governor has been trying to recover since a blackface scandal almost forced him to resign two months ago. He’s won praise from black lawmakers for focusing his legislative agenda on efforts to address longstanding racial inequities.
In other business, a bill establishing a photoless identification for Virginia
was passed during Wednesday’s session.
HB 2441, chief patroned by Del. Tony Wilt, R-Broadway, passed the House 98-0 and the Senate 38-0.
Members of the Old Order Mennonite and Amish communities in Virginia had been facing difficulties due to the lack of state IDs. Members of those communities do not have state IDs, which require portraits, due to their religious opposition to portrait photography.
The bill was based on the results of study conducted by the Department of Motor Vehicles as well as input from law enforcement, elected officials and members of the Old Order community.
The law takes effect July 1.