RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia lawmakers have rejected a plan to add tolls to Interstate 81 to pay for $2 billion in upgrades that would improve safety and traffic flow.
Legislators moved Thursday to shelve any immediate plans to add tolls or increase regional taxes to pay for improvements to the 325-mile highway that runs along western Virginia.
Lawmakers say they need more time to study potential funding sources, including an increase to the state gas tax.
Before the legislative session started, Gov. Ralph Northam and some Republican lawmakers tentatively backed a plan to add tolls that could cost as much as $50 for trucks and $25 for cars to use the entire highway. But business groups and trucking groups strongly opposed tolls, saying it would stifle commerce.
The rejection of the plan comes less than a month after the American Trucking Associations hinted January 17 it may sue the state of Virginia over legislation that proposes charging tolls on Interstate 81.
The ATA did so in a letter to Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam opposing the legislation, which Northam touts as the best way to fund improvements to the 325-mile stretch of interstate between Bristol, and Winchester.
The bill proposes tolling commercial trucks at 17 cents per mile, personal vehicles at about 11 cents per mile and offering an annual pass to commuters in passenger vehicles.
The letter, signed by Jennifer Hall, the ATA’s general counsel and executive vice president, legal affairs, says that if the legislation is adopted in its current form it would not only be poor public policy but would raise serious legal issues and may create an “impermissible burden” on interstate commerce.
The proposed plan had four options for tolling. The ATA letter dealt with the option that would toll all vehicles with an annual pass available exclusively to automobiles.
“The car-only annual pass proposal is unlawful under the U.S. Constitution because it represents an impermissible burden on interstate commerce,” Hall wrote. “More specifically, the U.S. Supreme Court has explained that, under the Commerce Clause, a transportation user fee is permissible only “if it (1) is based on some fair approximation of use of the facilities, (2) is not excessive in relation to the benefits conferred, and (3) does not discriminate against interstate commerce.”
The plan’s car-only annual pass option would fail this test for a variety of reasons, the ATA said, noting:
- User fees would bear no relationship to use of the tolled roads;
- Tolls on commercial vehicles would be excessive in relation to the benefits conferred;
- The plan favors noncommercial vehicles over commercial vehicles, which power interstate commerce.
The ATA said by allowing automobiles the opportunity to pay a one-time fee for unlimited travel over the course of the year but to deny that flat-rate opportunity to trucks means that the proposal is not “based on some fair approximation of use.”
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