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Sunday, February 24, 2013

Virginia lawmakers approve major bill to overhaul transportation funding

Traffic congestion on Columbia Pike in Annandale.
After years of gridlock on transportation funding, the Virginia General Assembly approved a landmark bill Feb. 23 that significantly overhauls the way the state will pay for highways and mass transit.

The $3.5 billion package eliminates the 17.5 cents per gallon gasoline tax and instead imposes a 3.5 percent tax on wholesale fuels indexed to inflation and economic growth. That is expected to raise the average family’s gas costs by about $10 to $15 a month.

The measure also raises the sales tax on nonfood items from 5 percent to 5.3 percent. It diverts as much as $200 million to transportation from the general fund, which means less funding for things like education and public services.

And, for the first time, it creates a regional funding differential: There is a new mechanism allowing a sales tax of 6 percent for residents of Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads to support transportation projects in those areas.

In exchange for gaining Democratic support for a modified version of Gov. Robert McDonnell’s (R) proposal, the governor agreed to support the expansion of Medicaid, a key element of the Affordable Care Act. 

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chair Sharon Bulova called the transportation bill “a great step toward addressing the transportation challenges we face in Fairfax County and the Northern Virginia region.” She said she is “especially pleased with the commitment of  $300 million for the Silver Line which will help to keep tolls in the Dulles Toll Road affordable.” 

“We have worked together across party lines to find common ground and pass the first sustainable long-term transportation funding plan in 27 years,” says a statement by McDonnell.

“Every year, Virginians have been paying a hidden transportation tax,” he said, noting that the congestion caused by the inaction to approve new transportation funding has cost every motorist in Northern Virginia $1,400 a year. “A continued failure to dramatically improve transportation would leave the Commonwealth less competitive economically, shrink our tax base, and endanger our well-earned reputation as the best state in the nation in which to do business.”

The General Assembly also passed several education measures proposed by McDonnell, including the creation of a new state board to take control of chronically underperforming schools, a grading system to let the public judge the quality of public schools, changes in the evaluation and grievance procedures for teachers which will weaken their job protections, and an expansion of the tax credits for donations to support private school scholarships.

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