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Carrico: speed up interstates, slow down APCo

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By Ben Bomberger, Reporter

RICHMOND — While introducing legislation that would slow down Appalachian Power Co.'s ability to increase its rates, Del. Bill Carrico (R-Grayson County) is also sponsoring a bill that would increase speeds on Virginia's highways.

Along with other legislation being offered this year, Carrico is sponsoring HB856, which would increase the general speed limit on highways where it is presently 65 mph to 70.

Carrico told The Gazette that he was approached by the newly elected governor's policy team to bring the issue before the General Assembly.

Previously, Carrico said it seemed that every year delegates with interstates in their counties were bringing legislation proposing to increase speed limits.

Parts of Interstate 85 have already been increased to 70 mph, but the legislature has denied requests for other sections.

Carrico explained his reasoning for voting against speed limit changes last year. "I'd rather see a state-wide expansion of [the increase] and not have to piecemeal the whole state," he told The Gazette. "So I agreed to carry the bill.

“You can get killed in a 30 mile-an-hour crash,” he told the Virginian-Pilot newspaper. “People are going 70 anyway — let’s be brutally honest.”

Even if the General Assembly passes the bill, the speed limit will not automatically increase, Carrico said. The Virginia Department of Transportation would have to do studies and decide which sections of the interstates can safely handle the increase.

"From that study there will be a determination of what has to be done and if it's safe," he said. "It's then presented back to the governor and the governor will determine whether it's possible or not."

In other words, it wouldn't matter where you were in Virginia. If the study showed that it was safe enough, the speed limit would be 70 mph.

While he hadn't heard from any constituents on the issue, Carrico noted that the surrounding states — North Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia and Maryland — all have speed limits of 70 mph.

Last week, the bill gained subcommittee approval and advanced to the full House Transportation Committee, which approved it 13-8. It now advances to the House floor.

The subcommittee heard opposition from the insurance industry and the Sierra Club. Opponents said the bill would make the roads less safe, increase fuel consumption and require spending for signs and associated road improvements.

A 5 m.p.h. increase in speed in a collision results in an exponential increase in the kinetic energy released, warned Chris LaGrow, an insurance lobbyist.

"You can change the speed limit law, but you can't change the laws of physics," he said. "You're going to get much more severe impacts."

A 1999 study done by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that higher speed limits enacted by 24 states in the mid-1990s resulted in 15 percent more traffic fatalities.

Tyler Madison, a member of the Sierra Club, said 55 is the optimum speed for fuel efficiency, which drops by 10 to 15 percent with a 10 mph increase in speed over that.

She said a higher limit will increase the nation's dependence on foreign oil.

The legislation would authorize a state-wide 70 mph limit on interstates; multilane, divided, and limited-access highways; and high-occupancy vehicle lanes, if they are physically separated from regular travel lanes.

Sen. Stephen Newman (R-Lynchburg) is sponsoring an identical bill in the Senate, also at the request of Gov. Bob McDonnell.

Stacey Johnson, the governor's press secretary, called the measure "a common-sense step to get traffic moving faster in the commonwealth."

Johnson disputed the idea that higher speeds mean more accidents.

"If speed limits reflect real travel speeds, traffic will flow more uniformly, thus making the roads safer," she said. "In addition, cars are being built stronger with more secure structure and advanced air bag and safety systems."

Johnson rejected a suggestion from LaGrow, the insurance lobbyist, that McDonnell's interest in a higher speed limit is driven by a desire for more gas-tax revenue flowing from higher fuel consumption.

Slow Down, AEP

In contrast to the speed limit bill, the delegate hopes to put the brakes on Appalachian Power Co.

Carrico, who took part in a forum with APCo representatives in Galax earlier this month, has introduced HB 477 and HB 1308.

If passed, HB 477 would limit a utility company's rate increase to 5 percent any time the unemployment rate exceeds 5 percent in the utility company's service area.

Carrico said in the past couple weeks he has spoken to several dozen of his constituents who are upset and frustrated by APCo's skyrocketing electric bills.

Along with limiting the amount a utility company can increase its rates, Carrico has also introduced HB 1308, which would prohibit interim rate increases.

Interim rates allow a utility company to begin charging the higher amount before any approval or denial from the State Corporation Commission.

Carrico added that his constituents have expressed that, while the utility company must reimburse any money owed with interest, it puts a burden on them to pay those larger bills during tough economic times.

While the members of the General Assembly believed they had addressed the issue with the passage of the 2007 re-regulation legislation, Carrico told The Gazette that a loophole remained, which allowed the practice to continue.

HB 1308 would eliminate the ability to add anything to a customer's bill until the rate was approved by the SCC, and would give the commission a time frame of nine months to make a decision.

"With the passage of my legislation this year, interim rates will finally be a thing of the past, and it will make certain that not one cent is added to a customer's bill until the SCC has given final approval," Carrico said.

Last week, the delegate told The Gazette that enough noise has been made over the rate increases that CEO of AEP ended up in Richmond on Wednesday concerned about how the General Assembly felt about the company's approach to these rates.

"They've not made us any guarantees on what they would do," Carrico said. "But they understand that we're not happy with them."

Carrico plans to write a letter to the new attorney general, urging him to actively get involved on behalf of the citizens of Southwest Virginia. He also  plans to write a follow-up letter to the SCC to reaffirm the comments he made in November at an Abingdon hearing where he expressed his strong opposition to APCo's pending base rate hike.

He also hopes to have his Web site (AEPaction.org) back online in the coming days. The Web site allows visitors to share their comments directly with the SCC with just a few clicks of the mouse.

Landmark News Service contributed to this report.