Virginia lawmakers produce competing road plans

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Local,Virginia,Steve Contorno

RICHMOND -- Virginia lawmakers are at odds over how to fund desperately needed roadwork in the commonwealth with the Senate pushing hard to raise the gas tax and the House looking to shift funding from schools and other services.

The competing plans to fund transportation sailed out of their respective chambers Tuesday during a hectic deadline day for the House and Senate to send bills to the other body.

The two transportation plans now being advanced are significantly different from what Gov. Bob McDonnell proposed in his budget. Still, while the House tinkered with McDonnell's proposal, the Senate gutted it.

McDonnell and House Republicans propose shifting a portion of the existing sales tax revenue, totaling $110 million, away from schools and services to transportation projects. The Virginia Department of Transportation could also sell naming rights on state roads to generate new revenue.

That plan never gained traction in the Senate, where Republicans share power with Democrats on budget matters. A bipartisan group of lawmakers voted Tuesday to link increases in the gas tax to inflation, raising additional revenue for road repairs. In the first year, the tax would rise from the current 17.5 cents a gallon to 17.7 cents.

The gas tax hasn't been raised since 1986 even though increasingly fuel efficient cars mean less money is flowing into state coffers for every mile traveled on Virginia roads, said Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, the bill's chief patron.

"This is the number one unaddressed issue that this General Assembly has not faced in a long time and it's coming home to get us," Wagner said.

A spokesman for McDonnell said he would weigh the proposal, but still favors the House plan, which more closely resembles his original proposal.

House Speaker Bill Howell said he would be "very surprised" if the Senate bill would survive in the House, where Republicans hold a 2-to-1 majority.

The issue is likely headed for a closed-door conference committee where the two bodies will attempt to iron out a compromise. If the stalemate persists, lawmakers could walk away from the 2012 session with no new money for roads.

"Of course that can happen," Howell said. "Lot's of times it doesn't seem like there's common ground and they find a solution. I hope they do."

scontorno@washingtonexaminer.com

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