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Pedaling Toward Finish Line

I had the opportunity to support two bills both in committee and on the floor that will make traveling around Mount Vernon a little safer for bicyclists. Senate Bill 117 imposes a penalty for “dooring” bikers, including creating a cause of action for lawsuits and the ability to file an insurance claim.

This bill fines an individual $50 when they open a car door without ensuring they can safely do so. This would provide a monetary incentive encouraging motorists to be more cognizant of their surroundings when exiting their cars in traffic and around bicyclists and motorcyclists.

Senate Bill 669 incentivizes localities to build bike lanes. Improving bike safety has many societal benefits, such as improving public health, traffic, and the environment.

Currently, localities that convert highway lanes into bicycle-only lanes risk losing some highway maintenance funds. SB 669 allows cities and towns that convert to bicycle-only lanes to keep the highway maintenance funds. I agree with the patron and most of my constituents that there should be an incentive for municipalities to build bike lanes rather than a penalty.

However, as we pedal forward, we make one major step backward by extending the coal tax credit. Hundreds of millions of dollars in state tax credits handed out since 1988 haven’t changed the fact that these tax credits are a drop in the bucket compared to the decline in key coal prices due to global economic factors.

Between 1988 and 2014, Virginia gave state coal producers $737 million in tax credits. During that time, annual coal tonnage and employment both declined by 67 percent. Preliminary data show that employment continued to decline another 23 percent in 2015. As of January, Virginia is spending over $25 million a year to “protect” 2,850 jobs.

The decline of Virginia’s coal industry is tragic to the economy of southwest Virginia and the livelihoods of residents there. The economy there is in free fall and southwest Virginia’s economy is weaker now than before the recession, according to data from The Commonwealth Institute. However, tax credits for coal utilities and mining companies are doing nothing to change the reality that dwindling coal reserves, production and mining cost increases, transportation costs increases and declining market prices are working against the coal industry.

Tax credits that amount to roughly $2 per ton of Virginia coal will be minimal when compared to the precipitous drop in the price of coal from a peak of $200 per ton to around $85 per ton.

Coal’s decline has hit southwest Virginia hard, and it needs a hand up. However coal tax credits to utility companies are not the answer. Coal tax credits cost Virginia more than $9,000 per job, and we could put that money to better use through education, career technical training and investments in our 21st century energy opportunities.