Increased gas taxes will pay for road improvements and passenger rail.

The most significant transportation package in decades is progressing in the Virginia General Assembly.

Companion bills that would change how the state collects transportation revenues and how much money it puts into modernizations, among other changes, have passed the Virginia House of Delegates and state Senate.

Democrats say that with these transportation bills, they’re making good on their campaign promises to focus the General Assembly session on real reforms affecting real people, right now.

“Voters overwhelmingly demanded this General Assembly session be focused on good governance where we pass bold, long-lasting lasting reforms that improve their everyday lives,” said House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn. “The landmark transportation modernization legislation passed by the House” delivers on that mandate, she said.

Virginia has been named as one of the worst places to drive in the United States. A low point came in 2017, when a stretch of Route 95 between Fairfax and Fredericksburg was named the worst traffic “hot spot” in the country.

Proponents say the bills would reduce congestion, make roads safer, and transform passenger and commuter rail across the Commonwealth.

The legislation would bring construction of the final section of Corridor Q of the Appalachian Development Highway System to the finish line, and authorize money for improvements in the notoriously congested Interstate 81 and Interstate 66 corridors.

In Virginia, the government relies on motor fuel taxes as a primary source of transportation dollars.  The state currently collects a 22.4-cent tax on gas and a 23.7-cent rate on diesel. The Senate-approved version of the bill would raise fuel rates by 8 cents over two years. The tax rates would be tied to inflation for regular increases thereafter. 

The House of Delegates bill more closely resembles Gov. Ralph Northam’s original proposal in calling for a steeper gas tax hike, but it offsets those increases with reduced vehicle registration fees and the elimination of safety inspections, which would save Virginians about $280 million per year.

Prior proposals to raise the gas tax failed in the General Assembly, which until this year, had largely been controlled by Republicans, leading to the current gaps in transportation funding. More fuel efficient vehicles and lower fuel prices have also led to declines in gas tax revenue.

In addition to paying for road and other transit improvements, the revenues generated by the current proposals would jumpstart Northam’s plan to double passenger rail service over the next ten years.

The bill would establish a Virginia Passenger Rail Authority that would “promote, sustain, and expand the availability of passenger and commuter rail service in the Commonwealth” according to bill.

“Understanding that we can no longer simply pave our way out of traffic, this legislation invests significant new resources in passenger rail and mass transit,” Executive Director Danny Plaugher of Virginians for High Speed Rail told the Washington Post.

“Our legislation will make our roads safer. It will put in place sustainable streamlined transportation funding, it will improve transit, it will help fix our roads and bridges, and expand passenger and commuter rail service throughout Virginia,” Northam said at a news conference in late January.

The proposals would also enact a host of new transportation safety programs. Use of handheld cellphones while driving would become illegal, and police would be able to pull people over for failing to wear a seat belt. Local governments would also get the greenlight to lower speed limits in business or residential districts to less than 25 mph.

Speed cameras would also come to Virginia, under the proposals. The cameras could be placed on interstates and roads designated as safety corridors, and drivers would be notified by a road sign saying that speed limits are photo enforced. Drivers who are photographed speeding over 10 map over the limit would receive a fine in the mail. 

The House and Senate will work to sort out differences between the two bills in the coming weeks. If an agreement is reached, it will be sent to Gov. Ralph Northam, who is expected to sign the bill into law.