By Betsy Cribb
Every day, about 2,200 truck drivers and travelers visit White’s Travel Center in Raphine to fill up on food and fuel. Another 1,200 drivers make pit stops at Lee Hi Travel Plaza in Rockbridge County.
But the family that has run the centers for years worries that anticipated changes in Virginia’s gasoline and diesel taxes could put a dent in that business.
“If the wholesale price of diesel fuel goes to $5 a gallon, [the tax] could go as [high] as 10 or 12 cents,” said Bobby Berkstresser, who took over Lee Hi Travel in 1981 and purchased White’s in 2000.
“Our concern is that, because we’re competing with other states, companies may choose…to [not buy] Virginia fuel.”
Over the past 30 years, the Berkstressers have pumped millions of dollars into their operations amid constantly fluctuating gasoline and fuel prices. They became a Travel Centers of America franchisee in December 2011 and have since seen improved sales.
“The winter is a little rough, but business in the last year has been pretty good,” Berkstresser said.
But he now worries that Gov. Bob McDonnell’s statewide transportation bill, which was passed by the General Assembly on Feb. 24, could slow business. The bill awaits McDonnell’s signature, which is expected.
Come July 1, the law will replace the current 17.5-cent retail fuel tax with a 3.5 percent tax on the wholesale price of gas and a 6 percent tax on diesel fuel.
Lexington City Manager Jon Ellestad says that, while the diesel price in Virginia is lower than in surrounding states, this tax change could cause problems for Virginia truck stops and travel centers.
“If we change those economics, and fuel is all of a sudden more expensive…the long-haul truckers are going to plan their routes so that they stop for fuel before they get into Virginia or after they leave Virginia,” Ellestad said. “[It] could have a perverse economic impact on the trucking industry.”
In addition, the sales tax in Virginia will rise from 5 percent to 5.3 percent. These and other new fees are expected to generate roughly $850 million a year for the state’s transportation needs.
“We need additional revenue to put towards our roads. And [the bill] should mean that we’ll start getting some money set aside in our urban construction funds so that at some point in time in the future,” Ellestad said. “We’ll be able to
do an actual road improvement project.”
Ellestad acknowledged that legislators sometimes have to do what is “politically palatable,” even though it might not be the best solution.
“You’re better off doing something,” he said. “Whether or not it’s perfect, you’ve got to do something.”
While Berkstresser is mostly happy with the legislation, he says he is a little concerned about McDonnell’s motives.
“I think we worry more that the decision was based on politics instead of good government,” Berkstresser said. Any kinks in the bill would be worked out in the 30-day comment period that takes place right after the bill passes, he added.