Diminishing fuel-tax returns of about 45 percent have hampered Virginia’s infrastructure-funding efforts, but higher tax rates approved by the General Assembly this year will boost those efforts, Virginia Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine told the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce at an Aug. 7 panel discussion.
Virginia’s new gas-tax rates, averaging 40.5 cents per gallon, will generate about $151 million per year along Interstate 81, $39 million along Interstate 95, $27 million along Interstate 64 and provide $20 million for the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA), she said
State officials are studying longer-term options for different kinds of user fees and will present choices to the legislature, said Valentine, who added this was the first time in Virginia’s history when gas-tax revenues were going down while vehicle miles traveled were increasing.
“In Virginia, we leverage every penny,” Valentine said. “We are coming to the table and creating a sustainable plan . . .We are looking at every option there is.”
Funding to improve I-81 in western Virginia was stripped out of a bill during this year’s legislative session, but a bipartisan group of lawmakers and transportation advocates in a “tremendous collaborative effort” kept pursuing it in the veto session, Valentine said.
I-81 carries 42 percent of interstate trucks in Virginia and, while the gasoline tax averaged 63 cents per gallon in the multistate I-81 corridor, it was only 23 cents in Virginia, she said.
Approximately $15 billion of Virginia’s $22.9 billion six-year transportation budget is being invested in Northern Virginia, Valentine said.
“We want to make this region a region that has a multi-modal platform of choices,” she said.
NVTA has a backlog of projects and the recent diversion of $275 million of its funding to help finance Metro has meant less for regional multimodal transportation projects, said Monica Backmon, the group’s executive director.
“Dedicated funding for Metro was needed, but it left a hole,” said Backmon, who added NVTA also needs federal and regional funding for its initiatives.
Valentine, who noted Virginia was the first participating jurisdiction to commit its $154 million annual share for dedicated Metrorail funding, said she and NVTA chairman Martin Nohe had modified the Metro-funding bill, and now Gov. Northam wants to reinstate amendments to the legislation to make NVTA whole again.
Revenues are down for Virginia’s Smart Scale initiative for funding congestion-reducing projects, Valentine said. Most funding requests approved recently were for transit-oriented projects.
Panelist Ed Mortimer, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s vice president of transportation and infrastructure, echoed his keynote speech at the event by saying completion of Metro’s Silver Line needs to be the region’s top transportation priority.
Washington Dulles International Airport will benefit starting July 16, 2020, the projected opening date of the Silver Line’s second phase, which will pass close to the airport (though not into the terminal) on its way between Reston and Loudoun County.
In addition to bringing more people to Dulles via mass transit, the Silver Line’s extension likely will lead to increased redevelopment around the six new stations, said Michael Stewart, a vice president of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) and manager of Dulles Airport.
MWAA officials have been trying to stabilize fees at the airport and improve its permit process, Stewart said. The agency five years ago set up an Office of Revenue and has been trying to increase returns from non-aviation sources, he said.
The annual State of Transportation discussion, held at the chamber’s Tysons headquarters, was moderated by Kathryn Falk of Cox Communications.
Virginia officials are anticipating congestion relief along Interstate 66 due to the addition of Express lanes. The road in 2015 earned the dubious honor of “worst damned freeway in America,” said Valentine, who noted that the highway ends at a traffic light in northwest Washington, D.C.
Weekday rush-hour tolls on I-66 inside the Beltway have come down in cost since being instituted in December 2017, when they averaged $8.32 for morning trips inbound toward the District of Columbia and $4.44 per evening outbound trip, Valentine said. Tolls now average around $6 for eastbound trips and $4.17 for westbound ones, she said.
That section of I-66, which handles an estimated 52,800 vehicles per day, now allows vehicles with two or more occupants to use the highway for free, but that minimum will be raised to three once improvements outside the Beltway are finished in 2022, she said.
In the long run, state transportation officials also desire advanced Virginia Railway Express and Amtrak service and improvements to Long Bridge, a rail span that crosses the Potomac River south of the 14th Street Bridge and the Charles R. Fenwick Bridge that handles Metro trains.