By Whitt Clement, Lisa Guthrie and Danny Plaugher
Very few pieces of legislation will have as much of a generational impact as Gov. Ralph Northam’s transportation omnibus legislation, introduced by Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax (Senate Bill 890) and House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax (House Bill 1414).
This package completely restructures and streamlines the way our state distributes our transportation dollars.
Under the current method, our eight state transportation revenue sources are collected and then sent to designated recipients of mode-specified funds. Some of the revenue sources generate more than others, while some fluctuate in unexpected ways, so it’s not exactly predictable. For example, our passenger rail fund today only receives a small portion of the sales tax as its only revenue source. Under this omnibus package, everything is streamlined. All the revenue comes in and goes into the Commonwealth Transportation Fund, where it is divided out to each mode based on a formula percentage. This update will remove any funding volatility by expanding the number of sources that rail, transit, roads, airports, spaceports and seaports receive funding from. As the old saying goes, this is a case where all boats will rise together.
In addition to restructuring our transportation revenue distributions, this package generates substantial new revenue to expand our passenger rail network, improve our public transit system, replace our aging bridges and tunnels, better maintain our current roadways, and improve the safety of our roads.
This legislation dedicates $351 million in new funding over the next four years to improving the maintenance of our roadways, bridges and special structures. This funding is very much needed. More than 34% of our state’s nearly 129,000 roadway lane miles are rated as deficient according to the Virginia Department of Transportation. We have 4,400 special structures whose average age is 62 years old, on the cusp of being rated poor. This funding will allow our commonwealth to increase our investment in improving our current transportation assets and bring them up to a level that Virginians deserve.
The omnibus bill also invests $98 million in new funding on several safety measures such as making seat belt use a primary traffic offense, prohibiting the use of handheld devices, prohibiting open containers of alcohol in the passenger area of a vehicle, improving speed enforcement on highway safety corridors, and lowering speed limits in business and resident areas. Combined, these safety improvements are anticipated to lower traffic deaths on our highways by 15 percent.
There are also significant investments in passenger rail and transit included in the omnibus. This legislation invests $392 million in new funding in better passenger rail and improved public transit.
The passenger rail funding would result in a 53% increase in Amtrak service including new trains to Richmond, Hampton Roads, and eventually to Roanoke and the New River Valley, as well as a 39% increase in Virginia Railway Express service. This additional service will remove 165 million passenger miles from our roadways and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by more than 43,000 metric tons. These bills also create a Virginia Passenger Rail Authority to allow the commonwealth to begin owning and managing its railroad real estate holdings.
The new transit funding will be used to make several improvements to our public transit network, including the creation of a Transit Incentive Program to promote improved transit service in urbanized areas of the commonwealth and to reduce barriers to transit use for low-income individuals, and significant new money to assist our transit agencies with their capital maintenance needs. These mass transit investments will grow ridership, increase economic opportunities for our citizens and improve our environment.
Simply put, this transportation omnibus is a large step in the right direction. By removing funding volatility, investing in a true multimodal approach and indexing one of our largest revenue sources to inflation, the governor’s proposal invests in our transportation network in a way that will allow the commonwealth to maintain current assets, while growing in an effective and efficient manner.
This is something that every Virginian should get behind, and we ask our state legislators to support these very important pieces of legislation.