Battle over “free passage” bills

RICHMOND, Va. (WAVY) — The battle over future tolls and the possibility of free alternatives has you and your hard-earned money stuck in the middle in Richmond.

All lawmakers have agreed on so far is to disagree on legislation that would give you the chance of a toll-free ride on any new roads.

It’s been said the making of laws, like making sausage, is not a pretty site, and it played out Wednesday at the General Assembly. How do we build new roads, and how do we keep old roads toll-free?

Delegate Chris Jones(R) Suffolk sponsored Bill 1069 that calls for free alternatives when tolling. “If you want to take away the free lanes then you would have to add new capacity and then only tow that new capacity,” said Jones.

HB1069 Talking Points

However, Del. Jones who is also Chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee was presenting his Bill before the Senate Transportation Committee, and State Senator Bill Sidestep and other republicans on the committee have their own counter plan which could threaten any deal at all. Sen. Sidestep said of his plan, “If you have two lanes and you are going to add two lanes, you can toll those two new lanes. All my bill says is you have to run it through the General Assembly first.”

That is the rub for Del. Jones who says if it’s up to the General Assembly, 140 members agreeing on tolls, no new roads will be built and public private partnerships will dry up and die on the vine. Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Lane told Senator DeSteph, “If this is contingent on 140 people voting on a contract…it’s not going to happen…so I respectfully disagree with Senator DeSteph that this would not harm the Public Private Partnership process it would effectively kill it.”

Lane suggested what partners would go through the years of deliberations and negotiations just to have it killed by elected public officials who don’t want their constituents tolled.

Del. Jones then had this exchange with the Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Carrico/(R) Galax. Sen. Carrico said, “You do have other options…if we defeat your bill…and we will make a decision by tonight.”

Del. Jones responded, “I do have other options.”

Carrico said, “I know you do.”

Jones replied, “I am going to exercise them.”

“I understand that,” said Carrico.

Jones said, “This is not my first rodeo.”

Carrico said, “Not mine either. I may be the new Chairman, but I’ve been here 14 years.”

Del. Jones told Sen. Carrico not to send his bill to further study for the year which kills the bill. Del. Jones says the time for study is over, and it’s time to send a message. “New lanes you can toll, old lanes you must leave alone.”

Sen. Carrico shot back, “I understand the frustration.”

Jones said, “There’s no frustration. I just think it is important public policy, and we’re waiting a year for no reason.”

Carrico said, “That’s your opinion.”

“That is my opinion,” said Jones.

Carrico who thinks Jones didn’t give the Committee enough time to study the substitute bill said, “That is correct. It is my opinion, and I want time to look at it. “

In frustration Del. Jones said, “If the issue is to kill it, I say just kill it. I don’t care about having a bill to have a bill. I want a bill that is good public policy, and what makes the best difference.”

Del. Jones told the Chairman what will happen if they defeat his bill, “They (toll operators) are looking to put a $2 toll on another crossing. If you kill this bill they can do that for the next year, so we’ve done nothing to limit, and to protect consumers in that regard. Maybe that’s the why I feel the way I do because I really believe Hampton Roads got the short end of the stick…with the tolls on the Downtown and Midtown Tunnels.”

Senator DeSteph offered an olive branch to Jones to get together and work out the differences of the bill which both think is important and vital legislation.

By early evening a deal was hammered out. Del Jones two bills HB 1069 and HB1070 will be merged keeping all the consumer protection elements in the combined bill. The sticky issues of tolling policy are taken out and will be added to the State Budget since it will require money. So the policy of only adding tolls to new lanes added is still under negotiation in the new budget which brings us back to the new power of Del. Chris Jones who is the Chair of House Appropriations and a top budget negotiator and had already put his bill in the budget. His tolling policy must still be negotiated.

It was a fascinating day of watching government at work. Sometimes not pretty, but hopefully in the end resolution and agreement.

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