Lawmakers Eye Raising Virginia’s Gas Tax for Road Construction

Mon December 15, 2003 - National Edition

RICHMOND, VA (AP) A key Republican legislator has submitted legislation to the General Assembly calling for an increase in Virginia’s gas tax by 6.5 cents per gallon, and it looks like other Republicans may be ready to back it.

Del. Harry J. Parrish of Manassas, who chairs the House Finance Committee, said the tax increase would raise approximately $312 million annually, which would help pay for much-needed transportation projects in Hampton Roads and northern Virginia.

The current tax of 17.5 cents per gallon, the 12th-lowest in the nation, generates $840 million per year.

"Something has to be done or by 2007 we won’t have any money for new construction," Parrish said. "By 2011 we won’t be able to pull down federal highway grants because we won’t have enough matching state money."

Sen. John H. Chichester, R-Stafford, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, has hinted in several recent speeches recently that he also will propose raising the gas tax this winter. He has called Virginia "woefully behind" in addressing transportation needs.

Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle, R-Virginia Beach, also told a group of Hampton Roads business and political leaders Dec. 12 that the time is right for a gas tax increase.

"The time to be nice and polite about it is gone," he said. "It’s extremely important that this be done as soon as possible."

Gov. Mark R. Warner, a Democrat, will submit a massive plan during the next legislative session to restructure parts of Virginia’s tax system and raise $500 million a year in new revenues. Warner’s plan does not address the gas tax, however, and has been criticized by Republicans and Democrats for doing little to help transportation.

The governor would raise approximately $185 million a year for roads, in part, by restoring highway construction money that was diverted to other services during the recession. Advisers said Warner did not propose raising the gas tax in his restructuring plan because of concerns that it would overburden poor and rural people.

Virginia hasn’t had a gas tax increase since 1986, when Gov. Gerald L. Baliles increased the rate by 2.5 cents a gallon. The average tax in other states is 24.5 cents a gallon, 7 cents more than Virginia’s rate.

The Commonwealth Transportation Board has said that Virginia’s gas tax has lost 40 percent of its buying power since 1986 because of inflation. Meanwhile, the number of licensed drivers has grown by 34 percent, registered vehicles by 54 percent and usage of roads and interstates by 79 percent.

The Hampton Roads Planning District Commission has estimated the region has $5 billion to spend for transportation projects during the next 20 years, but has $30 billion in identified needs.