Trump transition asks Virginia for list of potential toll road projects

WASHINGTON — The Trump transition team has asked Virginia for a list of potential transportation projects, including specific questions about projects that could include tolls, the state’s transportation secretary says.

“He’s asked us for a list …. for big projects that had other revenue sources,” Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said this week at a meeting of state transportation officials.

Virginia responded with a list of projects based on statewide priorities, ranging from the Port of Virginia to Interstate 81.

“We’d be very happy to have more (projects). But quite frankly, it’s only a very small part of our projects because it’s going to require tolling,” Layne said.

Trump’s nominee to lead the U.S. Transportation Department, Elaine Chao, told senators last week that private investors could boost the nation’s transportation system.

“It does not appear there’s going to be any major move in the first 100 days either on tax issues or infrastructure spending,” Layne told the Commonwealth Transportation Board this week. “The best way I’ve heard described so far what we’ve seen is the Trump vision — President-elect Trump is going for big, shiny legacy projects.”

The incoming administration’s infrastructure proposal appears to be focused on $137 billion in tax credits for private companies who invest in return for revenue streams from the projects like tolling.

“I think that’s actually a red herring, because most of these guys don’t need tax credits, because for the beginning years there is no taxable income,” Layne said.

“Most of the infrastructure needs in this country are rebuilding assets that aren’t putting in capacity.  … You need a sustainable, multimodal, growing revenue source,” he said. “And so far, that hasn’t come out of the Congress and the Trump administration. Now, maybe repatriation of taxes will be that source; I don’t know.”

Other opportunities Layne floated that could bring in money for state road projects include an end to the ban on states offering gas pumps or food services at many interstate rest areas — although he acknowledged a change like that would face stiff opposition from businesses and convenience stores near highway exits.

“The reality is the gas tax is a dying method of financing,” Layne said. “With fuel-efficient, electric cars, it’s dying. The positive to tolling is it really gets back to direct use of the road. I’m not saying I favor it or whatever, and I think that this administration tends to be on the side of the people using it pay for it.”

He said Wednesday that the Trump transition team has contacted him about a potential job in the administration. Layne, serving as transportation secretary for Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, has largely gotten along well with both Democrats and Republicans in Richmond.

The projects are there to be built in Virginia, even beyond the additions of more HOV or toll lanes through public-private partnership deals on Interstate 66, I-395 and I-95.

Local and regional agencies applied for $8.5 billion worth of funding this year under Virginia’s own transportation project ranking system. The state, in preliminary rankings released Tuesday, only has enough money available to fund about $1 billion worth — much of that money is paying only part of a project’s cost, with other funding coming from local or federal sources.

The preliminary rankings include money for additional VRE capacity on the Fredericksburg Line; fixes for Interstate 95 southbound at exit 126 onto Southpoint Parkway in Spotsylvania County; $1 million to help convert Columbia Pike in Arlington into a “smart corridor” that could increase transit convenience and use; changes for the intersection of Waxpool Road and Loudoun County Parkway; upgrades for Arcola Boulevard in Loudoun County; and a series of northern Virginia bike, bus and pedestrian projects.

The Commonwealth Transportation Board can shift money around to different projects over the coming months before a final vote in June, but Virginia Department of Transportation Commissioner Charlie Kilpatrick said the mere existence of a ranking system could give Virginia a leg up with the new administration.

“We’re in really good shape compared with other states,” he said. “You’ve got the line that we can fund, and then we’ve got below that line that if an extra dollar comes it can go directly toward … what the board has already set in place in terms of a structure.”

Maryland’s General Assembly passed a similar ranking system over Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto last year. Hogan argues the bill as written in Maryland constrains his transportation leaders.

Layne, Virginia’s transportation secretary, hopes that even if funding does not come quickly, other changes to ease the construction process might.

Layne cited some environmental rules that he said take two or three years to clear.

“I’m hoping they focus on things that clear the way for even the projects we have to move forward, and then also look at other alternatives,” he said.

Layne said Virginia has not gotten a good feel for the Trump administration’s position on rail or transit projects, but some were included in the list submitted.

“We are as aware as we can be,” he said. “I expect a lot more guidance here over the next few months … certainly we wish the new president very, very much success and (are) encouraged that he’s talked about infrastructure. At least it’s being talked about, and now we’ll see if we get some action,” Layne said.

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