Greater Greater Washington

VA legislative update: Hybrid tax going, but bills to limit Northern Virginia remain

As the Virginia legislative session continues, lawmakers in Richmond have agreed to remove the hybrid car tax, and successfully defeated an attempt to take away Northern Virginia's ability to plan and fund its own transportation projects. But several destructive bills, including one that could force the state to widen I-66 in Arlington, are still on the table.


Photo by Mrs. Gemstone on Flickr.

Hybrid car tax poised for repeal

Several lawmakers introduced bills to repeal a tax on the sale of hybrid cars, which the state passed last year. One such bill has now passed both houses and Governor Terry McAuliffe says he will sign it.

The original bill's justification was to make sure that hybrid car owners who use less gas, and thus pay less in gas taxes, still contribute to maintaining state roads. But its critics contend that the $64 tax is an inefficient way to make up for the lost revenue and unfairly punished hybrid drivers who are helping the environment by using less gas.

Attempts to limit Northern Virginia's choices narrow

Legislators have tabled several bills that sought to restrict the power of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA), which selects and funds transportation projects in that area. Instead, Republicans want Richmond to decide what gets built there, especially if it involves widening and building new highways.

Meanwhile, House Bill 658, sponsored by David LaRock (R-Sterling), would limit "transit, rail, and public transportation" to get at most 25% of Northern Virgnia's transportation funds. Not only is that an arbitrary standard, but it ignores how transit is already moving people and reducing highway congestion.

This proposal could prevent good transit projects from happening. If the region wants to ramp up a major new Metrorail, light rail, streetcar, or bus rapid transit project and spend more in one year than another, this cap would severely limit that ability. Besides, Northern Virginia should be able to choose how much to spend on different transportation priorities as it sees fit.

Bill would rate transportation projects on "congestion reduction"

Meanwhile, the legislature is still debating HB 2, which would require that the state pick transportation projects based on how much they are "expected to provide the greatest congestion reduction relative to cost." This relies on defining congestion solely as how many cars can move through an area, which automatically puts public transit at a disadvantage.

By its very nature, transit doesn't involve moving cars, and often requires a higher initial investment than a road project of comparable size. This proposal also ignores the ancillary benefits of transit, like lower pollution and the ability to tie transportation to land use, which can reduce overall car trips and conserve land.

"Study" bills push wasteful highway projects

A few bills require the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) to conduct studies of highway projects their authors really want to see built. HB 426, by Jim LeMunyon (R-Chantilly) demands a study of adding extra lanes (that aren't subject to HOV restrictions) on I-66 inside the Beltway in Arlington and Falls Church.

The original bill would have forced the I-66 widening to be part of VDOT's capital plan. LeMunyon changed it to only require a study, which means that even if it passes, it wouldn't necessarily mean the project happens. However, once a study gets finished, it's a lot easier for a sympathetic future administration to turn it into reality, and gives project supporters something concrete to push for.

The language doesn't allow VDOT to consider any sort of transit alternative to widening the highway, even though there is a rapid transit option, the Orange Line, literally running down the middle. It already assumes that the only solution for I-66 is more lanes for cars. Besides, VDOT already studied widening I-66, and the results show that general purpose lanes are not effective, while HOV, managed toll lanes and express bus perform better.

Another bill, HB 1244 by Thomas Rust (R-Fairfax) would push forward on studies to build an Outer Beltway with new bridges over the Potomac outside the Beltway. This would stimulate more car-dependent sprawl on what is now rural land at the region's edge.

Maryland opposes the idea, in order to protect its rural land in Montgomery's Agricultural Reserve and Charles County in southern Maryland. It instead wants to add capacity, for transit or cars, on the American Legion Bridge between Potomac and McLean, and is widening the Route 301 Henry Nice Bridge south of Washington. Despite this, former Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton initiated a study about potential new bridge locations. HB 1244 would make VDOT take the results of that study and recommend specific options.

Things are still very busy in Richmond. We are seeing the effects of local debates regarding Northern Virginia's transportation future reverberate at the state capitol just as hotly as they were contested back home. Bills rise and fall very quickly in the Virginia legislature, and we will keep you up to date on what is happening.

Canaan Merchant was born and raised in Powhatan, Virginia and attended George Mason University where he studied English. He became interested in urban design and transportation issues when listening to a presentation by Jeff Speck while attending GMU. He lives in Falls Church.  

Comments

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not material question:
Are they widening the 301 bridge or building a second span? I would have thought it tough to widen that original bridge.

by Richard on Jan 28, 2014 11:27 am • linkreport

@Richard: this should clarify things for you: http://www.us301waldorf.org/pages/terms_question_9.php "SHA is not going to widen the Governor Harry W. Nice Bridge, but the Maryland Transportation Authority (MdTA) is studying safety and capacity needs at the Bridge. Their study is analyzing alternative locations for the potential crossing of a new bridge across the Potomac River between King George County in Virginia and southern Charles County in Maryland. The intent is to widen the existing structure from 2 to 4 lanes"

(I love that answer.) More seriously, see http://www.mdta.maryland.gov/Nicebridge/Documents/12-19-2012_PDF_Postings/nice_bridge_newsletter_2013-02-13_web.pdf

by Mike on Jan 28, 2014 11:39 am • linkreport

the only bridges I would really like to see are for the purple line (and the southern one is already built)

by Richard on Jan 28, 2014 11:48 am • linkreport

@Richard: there is currently no way for bikes & peds to cross the potomac south of the wilson bridge. This would be godsent, and opens some really nice parts of MD & VA to potentially attractive recreational uses. (In some parts of both states which have made significant investments to attract tourism revenue.)

by Mike on Jan 28, 2014 11:54 am • linkreport

Thanks mike for saving me the trouble of posting the MDTA study link.

Personally, I think it would be beneficial to re-build the bridge to 4 lanes and at least match the highway on either side. And to provide a ped/bike connection as you mention. For the rest of the highway I'd support limited upgrades to grade separated interchanges IF AND ONLY IF there are some land use restrictions written into the plans to prevent induced demand and sprawl and keep the road focused as an Alt. route rather than a fun new highway to build near. That's a tall order though.

by Canaan on Jan 28, 2014 12:06 pm • linkreport

there is currently no way for bikes & peds to cross the potomac south of the wilson bridge. This would be godsent, and opens some really nice parts of MD & VA to potentially attractive recreational uses. (In some parts of both states which have made significant investments to attract tourism revenue.)

Paddle Boats!

by Richard on Jan 28, 2014 12:17 pm • linkreport

Thank you for this update. GGW has long had a hole in VA politics coverage. Glad it's being filled!

@ Canaan:For the rest of the highway I'd support limited upgrades to grade separated interchanges IF AND ONLY IF there are some land use restrictions written into the plans to prevent induced demand and sprawl and keep the road focused as an Alt. route rather than a fun new highway to build near. That's a tall order though.

Face it, with the HOT lanes limiting the widening of I-95 in NoVa for the next 75 years, upgrading US-301 to interstate specs is the only way to fix the traffic problems in NoVa and around DC. I know MD opposes the idea, and am sympathetic to the concerns. But in the end, the car lobby will win. US-301 will have to become some sort of an extension of I-97 and turn into a complete bypass of DC for long-distance travelers along the east coast.

The trick is to make sure that indeed, it does not become a sprawl inducing developers dream. However, it will demand smart opposition from the MD side with a willingness to give in exchange for the right restrictions.

by Jasper on Jan 28, 2014 12:26 pm • linkreport

Canaan Merchant for best post author name!!!

by DaveG on Jan 28, 2014 1:09 pm • linkreport

Re: I-66 widening study.

Why the fear and loathing of a simple study? Afraid of what it might produce?

by ceefer66 on Jan 28, 2014 1:43 pm • linkreport

why spend money on a study of something that won't happen anyway? Why not use that for a study of something that might happen?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jan 28, 2014 1:48 pm • linkreport

@ceefer66: "However, once a study gets finished, it's a lot easier for a sympathetic future administration to turn it into reality, and gives project supporters something concrete to push for... Besides, VDOT already studied widening I-66, and the results show that general purpose lanes are not effective, while HOV, managed toll lanes and express bus perform better. "

by alurin on Jan 28, 2014 1:54 pm • linkreport

@ceefer66: afraid of how a narrowly focused and carefully predetermined study will be used to muddy the waters of sensible transportation planning, all while wasting money to conduct it? you betcha. the issue has already been studied, which is why the losers of the fact-based process want to invent a new study to support their position.

by Mike on Jan 28, 2014 2:01 pm • linkreport

Why the fear and loathing of a simple study? Afraid of what it might produce?

What's being proposed is *not* a study of various transportation alternative for the 66 corridor (including both transit and increased highway capacity alternatives). That study has already been completed.

What's being proposed is a study to determine the best way to increase lanes on 66. This is putting the cart before the horse. We first need to design the best transportation choice for the 66 corridor and then proceed to studies on how to implement them.

Right now, the two sides (transit vs. SOV highway lanes) are at a stalemate. The fear is that by completing a study for one option but not the other, it will be easier to bypass the slow (but democratic) process of engaging stakeholders. Why else complete such a study at this premature stage?

by Falls Church on Jan 28, 2014 2:25 pm • linkreport

We see it as logical to add two more lanes at the Route 301 Henry Nice bridge to match the highway on both sides, and to do so in lieu of other bridge crossings south of DC. But it also has to be done with good planning and zoning in southern Md, including focusing growth in Waldorf and La Plata in mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods with good street grids that give local traffic a way to move without crowding 301.

This said, it's a mistake to think that the road will have a significant effect on Beltway and I-95 traffic given that the traffic on these roads during the peak hours is overwhelmingly our own regional commuter traffic.

by Stewart Schwartz on Jan 28, 2014 3:06 pm • linkreport

@Mike re "there is currently no way for bikes & peds to cross the potomac south of the wilson bridge. This would be godsent, and opens some really nice parts of MD & VA to potentially attractive recreational uses. (In some parts of both states which have made significant investments to attract tourism revenue.)"

Perhaps your comment is tongue-in-cheek, but in case it's not... I can't imagine using this purpose as one of the justifications for building a billion dollar bridge, particularly when a southern bridge would induce the very development that would destroy the "attractive recreational uses" your refer to. Similarly it was disappointing to see the bike path being cited as one of the reasons to build the Intercounty Connector.

Residents, smart growthers and environmentalists are fighting desperately to protect southern Charles County's remaining rural areas while focusing investment in Waldorf and La Plata. They are trying to protect the Mattawoman Creek watershed from a proposed cross-county highway that many believe is tied to recurring proposals for a southern bridge.

by Stewart Schwartz on Jan 28, 2014 3:14 pm • linkreport

The Nice bridge project entails building a new 4 lane span with bike path and demolishing the old one which is too narrow and steep for modern traffic. Another study of the Waldorf Bypass has been dormant since the Ehrlich administration.

What is needed is a comprehensive upgrade of the 301 corridor to limited access as has been long planned Eastern Bypass. This should be toll road with grade separation and a parallel freight rail bridge to bypass DC rail traffic.

This should be one of the most important projects for the region as it would divert significant freight (truck and rail) traffic off of i-95 and free up local roads from interstate traffic.

by Cyrus on Jan 28, 2014 3:17 pm • linkreport

@Stewart Schwartz: not at all. there are a number of really nice bike routes on both sides of the river, and the lack of a crossing limits the overall benefit.

as to whether going from 2 to 4 lanes will, in itself, drastically alter the region: I'm not convinced. certainly a larger bridge or a limited access highway would, but that's a different conversation that's out of the scope of this project.

by Mike on Jan 28, 2014 3:28 pm • linkreport

As daily commuter on 66 inside the Beltway, how can anyone say that widening 66 could be "wasteful"? You can debate priorities, but, an extra would not be wasteful.

by Arlington Bob on Jan 28, 2014 5:32 pm • linkreport

@Arlington Bob --

I'm assuming that your support for extra lanes on I-66 would be because you'd like to see less congestion on it? Alas, the reality of our good ol' pal induced demand means more lanes =/= less congestion.

by Aimee Custis on Jan 28, 2014 6:18 pm • linkreport

VDOT's extensive and year-long I-66 Multimodal Study [ http://www.vdot.virginia.gov/projects/northernvirginia/i-66_multimodal_study.asp ] has already determined that adding general-purpose travel lanes to I-66 inside the Beltway would increase corridor congestion and thus be counterproductive, whereas electronic tolling of I-66 during peak travel periods could quickly, inexpensively, and permanently *eliminate* I-66 congestion, without greatly increasing congestion on nearby parallel highways such as US-50 and the GWMP. VDOT needs to drill down on this tolling alternative, to mitigate any adverse consequences and achieve regional consensus. Further studying the addition of non-HOV lanes on I-66 is just a waste of time and money, except to demonstrate--once again--that such widening is infeasible and counterproductive.

by Allen Muchnick on Jan 28, 2014 9:03 pm • linkreport

@Arlington Bob: there's essentially zero chance that one more lane on 66 would make it free flowing. All it would do is increase the number of cars parked on the road during rush hour, especially if combined with lifting the HOV restriction. The reality is that there's no destination where the cars on 66 can go to, regardless of how big 66 is, and changing that would require dramatic road widening throughout Arlington and the monumental core of DC. (Which simply isn't going to happen for economic, engineering, and political reasons.)

by Mike on Jan 29, 2014 9:02 am • linkreport

I'd much rather have the opportunity to use extra ROW for an express section of the Orange Line.

http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/21083/how-would-metros-loop-work-with-an-arlington-express-line/

That would easily justify extending the metro from Vienna out to Centreville at least.

by Canaan on Jan 29, 2014 9:11 am • linkreport

@Canaan:

Couldn't agree more. An express section of the Orange line would make trips coming in from places like Fair Lakes and Centreville completely feasible.

by Joe on Jan 29, 2014 9:17 am • linkreport

As daily commuter on 66 inside the Beltway, how can anyone say that widening 66 could be "wasteful"? You can debate priorities, but, an extra would not be wasteful.

From my experience, 66 inside the beltway is hardly the issue, it's the mess you get into after you cross into DC, where the streets just aren't designed for that much traffic dumping onto the grid every second. So you could build 10 extra lanes on 66 and there might still be a backup.

Also 66 inside the beltway is constrained by Lee Highway, numerous bridges, houses, and in some places the metro. It would be massively expensive to add lanes inside the beltway.

Combine those two and you have very expensive for little value and that usually is described as wasteful.

by Richard on Jan 29, 2014 9:33 am • linkreport

Certainly there are cost benefit considerations but why not take it to Manassas/north PWC at that point? At least some of the 66 traffic is coming from there and it would give the county an opportunity to target future growth into dense areas and avoid sprawl which will probably become more inevitable as Fairfax nears build out.

by BTA on Jan 29, 2014 9:53 am • linkreport

@Canaan: your comments that hybrid owners use less gas, and therefore pay less in taxes is poor reporting. Your failure to report that this is faulty logic perpetuates the belief that this is true. It is not.

Hybrid owners MIGHT get better gas mileage but it depends on which hybrid you own. The Chevy Tahoe hybrid gets 26 mpg. A Hyundai Elantra gas powered car gets 35 mpg. In this example, the hybrid clearly sucks more gas and the owner visits the pump more frequently. Conclusion? Some hybrids don't get better gas mileage than gas powered cars. All hybrids are not equal is gas savings. Go to edmunds.com to compare and contrast these mpg's.

Add to that, the driving habits of any given driver. A Prius owner may get 50 mpg and drive 2-3 times more than a Pilot owner who carpools with 4 buddies (each driving one day a week). In this example the hybrid owner visits the pump more often and pays more in gas taxes. Conclusion? The assumption that hybrid owners pay less in gas taxes is incorrect.

You can't insinuate in your article that all hybrids are equal. And likewise, you can't state the justification that hybrids use less gas as if it were a fact. How do you know if a hybrid uses less gas unless you know how often they are driven?

Print the other side of the story, Canaan. Educate and inform your readers.

by Scott on Jan 31, 2014 4:32 pm • linkreport

Scott,

I thought I was clear in saying that argument you object to was being made by legislators rather than my personal opinion/analysis. I'm sorry if that wasn't clear.

But: I do think it's better that the tax was removed because at the time I think it was inserted for political reasons ("let's stick it to those prius driving liberals!") rather than on any attempt to make sure than ensuring that the roads get paved for.

Indeed, my personal preference would have been to simply raise the gas tax. That would benefit the SUV driver in your scenario and ensure the prius driver is paying for what he uses. But, the whole logic behind the bill initially was so that Gov. McDonnell could raise money for transportation without raising the gas tax, so that option was never on the table. In fact, his first draft of the bill removed the gas tax entirely in favor of raising the sales tax.

by Canaan on Jan 31, 2014 4:52 pm • linkreport

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