Despite impassioned floor speeches about the need for new transportation revenue, the Virginia Senate failed to pass a transportation funding package Tuesday.
Tuesday was the final day to act on bills originating in that chamber.
While the House of Delegates version of Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s (R) transportation funding proposal passed Tuesday and will now go to the Senate for consideration, Tuesday’s actions suggest it is unlikely a funding bill will pass this session.
In a statement released Tuesday night, McDonnell placed the blame on the shoulders of Senate Democrats.
“Rather than engaging in a debate on how to move forward with tackling our transportation problems, it is apparent that the Senate Democrats ... are once again content to risk our continued economic prosperity and our citizens’ quality of life,” McDonnell said.
However, his plan, which aimed to generate more than $3 billion for transportation over the next five years, also did not have sufficient support among members of his own party.
Senators of both parties said during floor debate that they did not agree with McDonnell’s proposal to eliminate the state’s gas tax and replace it with a higher state sales tax dedicated to transportation, as it removes the “user fee” aspect of the gas tax.
Two Republican senators proposed different substitute measures that retained the gas tax but changed it to a percentage-based tax, rather than the current cents-per-gallon structure. Both of the substitute bills failed, on 18-22 and 7-28 votes.
The Senate is evenly divided, with 20 members from each party. Because this bill deals with finances, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R) cannot serve as the tie-breaking vote, as he has done on other partisan issues.
Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw (D-Dist. 35), of Fairfax, said that he thought the substitute proposals were “headed in the right direction,” but he didn’t support the percentage-based tax on gas because it wouldn’t raise enough revenue.
He expects the price of gas to continue to experience big fluctuations due to speculation in the oil market. Saslaw’s professional background is in the gas and service station industry.
“You’re not going to get where you want to go when you have that kind of volatility in the market,” he said.
As for the governor’s proposal, Saslaw said, “We [the Democratic Caucus] simply feel that this is not the vehicle and there is a lot more that needs to be done.”
The House of Delegates made some changes to McDonnell’s proposed legislation, including a prohibition on tolling Interstate 95, but the bill remains largely similar to the governor’s plan.
As of Wednesday, each chamber began considering only legislation that has passed the other chamber. The Senate has through Feb. 21 to reach a compromise agreement on transportation funding.
Local business leaders, many of whom had backed McDonnell’s proposal, are expressing frustration with the Senate’s failure to reach a compromise.
The votes on the governor’s bill came on the same day that the Texas Transportation Institute again named the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, including Northern Virginia, as the most congested region in the country.
“Failing to pass any of the transportation bills introduced in the Senate was not in the best interest of the Commonwealth, and certainly not Northern Virginia,” said Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Jim Corcoran in a released statement. “We urge the Senate to come together and compromise to develop a sustainable transportation funding solution. Leaving Richmond without one is failure.”