The plan to begin tolling on Interstate 66 is bringing some Democrats and Republicans together in Richmond.
The 2016 session opened Wednesday with some lawmakers determined to block the Virginia Department of Transportation's plan to start tolling on I-66 inside the Beltway in 2017. The opposition surfaced first during the 2015 legislative races, and now some in Northern Virginia want to carry out their campaign pledge.
"This is a sandbag move on the people of Northern Virginia," complained Del. Bob Marshall (R-Prince William County).
Marshall said he got an earful from voters about the plan to add rush-hour tolling on existing I-66 lanes inside the Beltway and the creation of high-occupancy toll lanes on I-66 outside the Beltway. Marshall hopes to block both.
"I don't think this is fair at all,” he said. “We paid for that HOV lane. We paid for it again and again. You should not give it away to a private company."
Democratic State Sen. Chap Petersen shares the view.
"My theory is if you are going to have tolls, that's fine, but it’s got to be for new capacity, new lanes, especially inside the Beltway,” he said. “You can make it 12 lanes outside the Beltway, it’s still four lanes inside, same bottlenecks."
But in his State of the Commonwealth Address, Gov. Terry McAuliffe said the I-66 HOT lane plan will give commuters a way out of traffic logjams and spur economic development.
"We are adding new lanes to Interstate 66, which will allow 70,000 more people to move through the corridor each day,” McAuliffe said. “We are finally putting an end to the wheel-spinning that has kept this much-needed project from moving forward."
Other lawmakers are introducing bills to limit the fines and penalties assessed against drivers who commit HOT lanes violations.
New State Sen. Jeremy McPike knows well the commute from Prince William County to Alexandria. He says his bills will restore "commuter fairness."
"Making sure that if you get a ticket you're not getting fines and fees stacked on top of it before you've actually received the notice," said McPike.
Alexandria Del. Adam Ebbin will join the effort.
"I want to see more fairness for people who make a mistake by getting into the HOT lane or those who make a violation for the first time," said Ebbin.
McPike also wants to end the $10 fee assessed when an E-ZPass is inactive for 6 months.
Reporters Barred From Working on Virginia Senate Floor
Members of the media are being blocked from getting an up-close look at how the Virginia Senate operates.
The Republican majority voted Wednesday, the first day of the 2016 legislative session, to bar reporters from working directly on the Senate floor and instead designating they sit in a visitor's gallery with a limited view.
Reporters have long worked on the Senate floor, where they had a full view of the proceedings. That view sometimes includes the quiet arm-twisting on votes that can occur in the back of the Senate floor.
Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. declined to say why the new rules were put in place.
Both Sides of Abortion Debate Hold Events Before Start of General Assembly
Advocates on both sides of the abortion debate held events at the Capitol before the start of the 2016 General Assembly session.
Several Democratic lawmakers, including Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, joined NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia to announce at a news conference Wednesday they had signed a “statement of intent” in support of abortion rights.
Shortly afterward, several dozen anti-abortion advocates held an outdoor rally expressing support for legislation that would lessen public funding of Planned Parenthood.
Debates over social issues like abortion could be heated this session, but are unlikely to produce much movement. Republicans control both chambers of the General Assembly while Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe wields a veto pen.
Four years ago, anti-abortion lawmakers caused a national uproar after proposing to mandate medically invasive exams prior to abortions.
Virginia General Assembly Gaveled Into Session
The House and Senate gaveled into session around noon Wednesday, kicking off a 60-day sprint that will see lawmakers wrestle over a $100 billion biennial budget, fights over abortion and guns, and whether Virginia should expand Medicaid.
Republicans control both chambers of the General Assembly, keeping narrow control of the state Senate after an expensive and bruising election last year.
McAuliffe is looking to find compromise with GOP lawmakers over his proposed budget, which will likely be a focal point of this year's session. The governor, entering his third year in office, is proposing a billion-dollar increase in education spending, small corporate and individual tax cuts, and a 2 percent raise for state employees.