The journey featured some twists and turns, but on Monday a new law will go into effect setting in motion the process of making upgrades to Interstate 81.
A transportation package will raise $280 million a year, with about $150 million going toward I-81 improvements. The rest of the money will go toward transportation infrastructure needs elsewhere in the state.
The Virginia General Assembly met Jan. 9 to Feb. 24, and reconvened in April to consider amendments or vetoes of legislation by Gov. Ralph Northam. One of those amended bills was the I-81 package, and like most legislation approved by the legislature and signed by the governor, it goes into effect Monday.
The General Assembly returns to Richmond on July 9 for a special session Northam called to consider gun-related legislation in the wake of the May 31 mass shooting at a Virginia Beach government building.
With the I-81 initiative, most of the revenues will come from increased registration fees for trucks, based on their weight and wear on roadways, as well as higher taxes on diesel fuel, at the pump and through a North American compact that reimburses states for interstate truck travel.
The road tax will increase by 10 cents per gallon in two phases — one starting July 1 and another a year later. In mid-2021, the tax on diesel fuel at the pump will rise 6.8 cents per gallon.
I-81 carries 41% of interstate truck travel in Virginia, so it will receive the biggest share of the revenue from higher truck fees and diesel taxes.
There also will be a 2.1% regional fuel tax that will be levied in 36 jurisdictions within five regional planning districts along the corridor. This is similar to the regional taxes approved in 2013 for Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia as part of a deal that has transformed Virginia’s transportation system.
Revenue for I-81 will go toward $2 billion in road improvements, including widening highway sections, lengthening access ramps and making curve improvements such as lighted signs.
The transportation package the General Assembly approved in April underwent a drastic change from what was originally introduced.
The first draft called for putting tolls on I-81, with much of the financial burden placed on trucks. Trucking and anti-toll lobbying groups pushed back. Additionally, lawmakers from Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads showed discontent with proposed I-81 tolls for everyday drivers that were much lower than those in their regions. So the toll proposal was scrapped and replaced with the Northam administration ’s plan.
“My colleagues in Northern Virginia and Tidewater said our region needed to step up to the plate,” said Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt, who played a significant role in getting a package passed. “They said we need to have buy-in. I don’t like paying taxes more than anyone else, because Lord knows I pay enough. But we needed to have skin in the game.”
Part of the law includes the creation of the Interstate 81 Committee, composed of lawmakers and local officials. It will meet four times this year to gather input from the public. Dates haven’t been set.
While transportation officials are hoping to have some projects under construction next year, Austin urged patience from drivers because improvements will take place over a span of years.
“We’ve gotten so far behind, it’ll take time to catch up,” Austin said. “This is the beginning of a long-term project.”
Here is a rundown of other laws going into effect Monday that are likely to affect the daily lives of Virginians.
Driver’s license suspensions
The practice of suspending the Virginia driver’s license of anyone who doesn’t promptly pay court fines or costs will be temporarily stopped.
Those affected by this are broken down into four categories:
- About 30,000 people have a valid, unexpired license and the only reason they can’t drive is because of court debt. Those people will have their reinstatement fees waived, and they will be able to drive on July 1.
- About 208,000 people, in addition to having court debt, have some other issue, such as needing to provide proof of legal residence, they’ll need to rectify before they can drive.
- About 295,000 people have court debt as well as an additional suspension on their license. A common example is somebody who was driving on a suspended license and got a separate conviction for doing so. The DMV is clearing the court debt, but the person still has to ride out the duration of the license suspension.
- About 420,000 people have suspended licenses in Virginia but live in other states. Because the Virginia DMV inputs that information into a computer system that other DMVs can access across the country, those people aren’t eligible to get reinstated licenses in other states. The Virginia DMV has said that debt won’t be visible in the system anymore for other DMVs to see.
The Virginia DMV attempted to reach affected drivers by letter to explain their situations. Those who didn’t receive letters should contact the DMV for guidance if they are uncertain whether they are allowed to drive again starting Monday. The DMV is asking people going to local offices to be patient as it anticipates a busy summer working through this change.
The DMV can provide what is called a “Compliance Summary” for free that will list reasons why a driver’s license is suspended. People can get those by going to a DMV office, calling (804) 497-7100 to have one mailed or to set up an account at www.dmv.virginia.gov by downloading one.
This change does not eliminate court debt, so people are still expected to pay their balances. The state can use other methods to collect the debt, including garnishing tax refunds, putting a lien against property or jail time.
Because this change has been accomplished through Virginia’s biennial budget, it’s only effective through the end of June 2020.
“The budget amendment was a good step forward, but it’s not permanent,” said Pat Levy-Lavelle, an attorney at the Legal Aid Justice Center, which has fought the law. It argues the system disproportionately affects poor people , violates drivers’ rights to receive notice and restricts opportunities to be heard before driving rights are taken away.
When the General Assembly convenes next year, it could permanently repeal the law. Or the law could again be temporarily suspended through the budget.
The Legal Aid Justice Center and law firm McGuireWoods filed a lawsuit in 2016 seeking to permanently end the practice. U.S. District Judge Norman Moon, of Charlottesville, postponed the trial set for August to give the General Assembly a chance to pass a permanent fix.
Cheers to drink deals! Restaurants will be able to advertise their happy hour specials legally.
Previously, restaurants couldn’t promote specifics of their happy hour specials outside of their restaurants, including on their websites, on social media and in advertisements. Restaurants couldn’t advertise, for instance, $5 margaritas from 8 to 9 p.m, $2 beers on Tuesdays or “Wine Wednesdays” deals.
Virginians will have to wait until they turn 21 to purchase and possess smoking materials. Previously, people who were at least 18 could purchase tobacco products.
The new restrictions apply to cigarettes and liquid nicotine used in vaping devices. The law includes an exemption for active-duty military personnel. The law also curtails the sale of tobacco and nicotine products out of vending machines that are “generally accessible” to people under 21.
Another law going into effect will ban tobacco on school property for every school district in the state — outlawing the product in every school-related setting, including school activities off campus.
Vehicle inspection fee
Drivers who take their vehicles in for annual inspections will have to pay $20, an increase from $16.
All vehicles registered in Virginia have to be inspected annually to ensure they are working properly and comply with safety standards.
Physicians are prohibited from taking cash from Medicaid patients for opioid pain management or medication-assisted treatment.
The new law tries to address the issue of doctors who could be participating in Medicaid requiring cash for painkillers and drugs such as methadone used for medication-assisted treatment. Medication-assisted treatment is an approach used to prescribe patients drugs such as methadone to treat their addiction.
These cash clinics can lead to drugs being diverted to the streets because dealers sometimes front money to patients in exchange for a share of the drugs.
Localities now have the ability to ban smoking within outdoor amphitheaters or concert venues they own.
Roanoke City Council has signaled it plans to pass an ordinance to stop people from smoking at Elmwood Park. The council may consider designating a spot in the park for people to smoke so they can still enjoy music events.
Speed limit in construction zones
Virginia State Police may use hand-held photo speed monitoring cameras in highway work zones to cite people for speeding.
A trooper’s vehicle would have to have its blue flashing lights activated and signs warning of camera use would have to be placed within 1,000 feet of the work zone.
Tickets would be issued by mail for vehicles traveling at least 12 mph over the posted speed limit. Drivers would be able to contest the $125 fine.
A change to a previous law is aimed at encouraging people to report someone overdosing on drugs.
The “good Samaritan” law passed in 2015 required anyone who called police to report an overdose to “substantially cooperate with law enforcement in any investigation of any criminal offense reasonably related to an overdose” in order to avoid prosecution for a drug offense. The law doesn’t apply to the drug supplier.
The “substantially cooperate” requirement has been eliminated, which lawmakers hope will lead to more people calling 911.
It’s now a Class 3 misdemeanor for someone to use false caller identification with “the intent to defraud, intimidate or harass” people on the other line.
But don’t expect those annoying robocalls to end as a result of this law. Some lawmakers expressed that it would probably be hard for law enforcement to track down the callers and have them prosecuted. Often, these callers are offshore.
Children will have to remain in rear-facing child safety seats until the age of 2, or until the child reaches the minimum weight limit for a forward-facing child restraint device as determined by the manufacturer of the device.
Virginia’s child passenger safety laws require all children under age 8 be properly secured in a child safety seat or booster seat, regardless of weight or height.