Obenshain’s bill to limit fuel tax for some I-81 communities gets parked

By Calvin Pynn, contributor

A bill introduced by Senator Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg) aimed at limiting a gas tax increase in communities not directly along Interstate-81 got shut down this week in the General Assembly. 

Introduced as SB 692, the potential legislation would have exempted localities in the that weren’t along the interstate from the regional gas tax increase aimed at funding improvements to I-81. That funding mechanism was part of a measure passed into law last year. 

Obenshain’s bill had been pending in the Senate’s Finance and Appropriations Committee until Tuesday when it was slated for debate. 

But moments before discussing SB 692, the committee voted to move forward with another bill introduced by Senator John Edwards (D-Roanoke), that would impose an additional 2.1 percent fuel tax for localities outside of Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads, and the I-81 Corridor. Those communities were slated to see a 2.1 percent increase in the wholesale price of gas in order to fund transportation improvements. So essentially Edwards’ bill, which now moves to the full Senate, would even out the effect of the gas tax across the state. 

Because that action negated Obenshain’s bill, the committee voted 11-3 to “pass by indefinitely” SB 692.  While a “Pass by Indefinitely” motion means it could technically be continued to a future session, the chances of continuation are rare and almost always means the death of a bill. 

Obenshain did not respond to requests for comment. According to his legislative assistant, Jenni Aulgur, it’s too soon to tell if the senator will pursue legislation with a similar concept for next year’s General Assembly. 

Senator Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), who represents Virginia’s 25th District, cast one of the three votes to continue SB 692, as some of the localities that are affected by the fuel tax are in his legislative district. 

“I’m a team player, and I always have been, but let’s look at this from the perspective of somebody who lives in Bath County,” Deeds said in a live video feed of Tuesday’s session. “Bath, Highland, Alleghany — 81 doesn’t run through them, that’s what this bill is about.”

Deeds also didn’t return a request for comment. 

After years of study and a lengthy debate in the 2019 General Assembly, lawmakers ultimately settled on a localized gas tax increase on fuel sold in the I-81 Corridor in order to pay for widening and other improvements to I-81, which often suffers from snarled traffic and has led to some fatal accidents.  The legislation passed by the General Assembly last year also included an increase in truck registration fees, from which the revenue would have also funded transportation needs across Virginia. 

In August, The Roanoke Times reported that the I-81 Improvement Plan stirred uproar from rural counties in the I-81 Corridor, as several counties adopted resolutions opposing the tax increase. Obenshain announced his intent to introduce the legislation limiting the fuel tax around that same time, as he originally voted to fund the interstate’s needs last year by imposing tolls. 

“I don’t think it’s fair,” Obenshain told The Roanoke Times last summer. “I didn’t think it was fair when it was introduced, and I don’t think it’s fair now. I think we ought to reexamine it.” 

While the bill awaited action in the Finance and Appropriations committee, Harrisonburg and Rockingham County Chamber of Commerce President Frank Tamberino told The Citizen that the extra revenue would be necessary. 

“Improving the Interstate — improving any transportation system — is the reality of life, it all comes down to money,” he said. 

Tamberino said all counties and cities in and around the I-81 Corridor would benefit from the tax increase regardless of their proximity to the interstate because the improvements it would pay for would allow for safer transportation of goods and services. 

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