As part of his cross-commonwealth push to garner support for a new $1 billion investment in transportation, Gov. Tim Kaine (D) told citizens in eastern Loudoun County on Tuesday that "there is a cost to doing nothing."
Speaking before 287 people at Dominion High School in Sterling, Kaine said that the General Assembly — currently deadlocked over the issue in Richmond — must agree on a plan that adequately funds transportation projects in the long-term.
Failure to do so, he said, will mean that by 2010 Virginia will no longer have enough funds to match federal transportation grants, leaving potential road dollars on the table. Furthermore, he said, within four years, the state will only be able to afford limited maintenance of existing projects. Any new transportation projects would be put on hold indefinitely.
"What I'm trying to do is fix Virginia's transportation problem," Kaine said. "In Virginia, there's no free lunch. So you've got to find a way to do it."
Kaine's transportation plan would generate $1 billion annually by raising taxes and fees. Specifically, it would increase annual auto insurance premiums by $18, charge higher registration fees for heavy vehicles, increase the auto sales tax from 3 percent to 5 percent and levy higher fines on drivers convicted of dangerous offenses, such as drunk driving or driving recklessly.
Kaine is not proposing, he pointed out, any general tax increases, such as the sales tax or the gas tax. His plan, Kaine asserted, would increase local road construction funding by 90 percent and would more than double spending on public transit.
"I can look you in the eye and tell you that if we do this, there is a fantastic likelihood that things will work better in Northern Virginia," he said.
THE GOVERNOR'S plan is competing with a similar proposal from Senate lawmakers and a plan backed by the GOP majority of the House of Delegates.
The House plan, which would not raise any new taxes, would raise substantially less for transportation projects. In all, the House plan would raise $400 million for transportation, mostly by trimming budget increases for education, health and public safety.
The House plan would also earmark $533 million of the state's $1.3 billion surplus for transportation projects.
"The House has approved a plan that will increase transportation spending in every corner of Virginia," said Speaker of the House William Howell (R-Stafford) in a statement.
The Senate plan, backed by members of both parties, would raise roughly $1 billion annually in new funding for transportation, largely through a six-cent gas tax increase and a vehicle sales tax hike. The Senate plan would also dedicate $370 million of the surplus toward transportation funding over the next two years.
Sen. Russ Potts (R-Winchester) said Virginia cannot "put its head in the sand" and expect Northern Virginia's transportation crisis to go away.
"It doesn't matter if you're a Republican or a Democrat, we have the third worst congestion in the country," Potts said. "By November, we'll move beyond San Francisco and become the coveted No. 2."
Potts believes a long-term, substantial source of funding for transportation is essential to Virginia's future economic viability.
The House plan, Potts said, is merely a "gnat on an elephant's bottom."
LAST TUESDAY'S transportation town hall was the 22nd campaign-style event Kaine has held to drum up support for a dramatic new investment. Kaine's political action committee, Forward Together PAC, has also been buying radio ads around the state to convince citizens that more needs to be done.
When Kaine walked onto the stage Tuesday, he asked the audience if they're "completely happy" about the state's transportation situation. No hands went up.
"Everyone in this room knows that we need to do something different on transportation," he said, flanked by Northern Virginia lawmakers from both parties and two blue placards that said, "Grow Right, Get There Faster."
Rick Dotson, a Vienna resident who works at a semiconductor plant in Manassas, said he supports Kaine and wants to see more "smart growth" development, in which businesses, retail and residential real estate are integrated.
"We need to start seeing some smarter growth," said Dotson, who believes simply building new roads will not lessen the growing gridlock misery.
Diane Bonieskie, a Sterling Park resident and retired school teacher, opposes efforts to raise taxes and fees for transportation.
"Everybody is throwing up their hands complaining that there's too much traffic and they just want to throw money at the problem," Bonieskie said. "I don't want to see my taxes go up to fix transportation."
SEVERAL Northern Virginia lawmakers said they are not sure when the budget conferees will come to a compromise, but they hope it will be soon and mutually agreeable.
Del. Chuck Caputo (D-67) said he wants to see a new $1 billion investment but not by cutting core services of education, healthcare and public safety.
"There's a tremendous desire from around the commonwealth for us to do something about transportation and for us to do it right," Caputo said. "Our constituents are telling us to make sure there's long-term, consistent funding for transportation."
As traffic worsens in Northern Virginia, said Sen. Patricia Ticer (D-30), the rest of the state will start to suffer, as economic development — and consequently, taxes — begin to decline.
"If you don't think that the time we waste sitting in traffic is a tax, then I don't know what a tax is. Because it's money lost and money wasted," she said. "We're losing the economic benefits of companies not coming here because their employees can't get around. So we start losing the golden goose."
Not everyone at the town hall agreed that the correct course of action is through Kaine's plan or the Senate's plan.
Del. Tom Rust (D-86) said he favors a regional approach, in which Northern Virginia would raise its own funds and keep it in the area.
"We in Northern Virginia have got to step forward and work to solve our own problem."
Kaine told the audience he expects the deadlocked legislature to come to an agreement before July 1.
"I'm real optimistic that we'll get to a solution," he said. "But I'm not making any bets on when we'll get there."