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Lawmakers To (Hopefully) Tackle Transportation

Reston's legislators tell business leaders that help may be on the horizon for the region's traffic woes.

Virginia lawmakers worked for 115 days in 2004 to overcome legislative deadlock and approve a budget that allocated $1.5 billion in new spending for education, human services and public safety — just about everything except transportation.

Now, as the General Assembly convenes again in Richmond for 60 days, legislators are promising to pick up where they left off two years ago and work toward solving Virginia's gridlock misery.

"The main thing this year is going to be transportation," said Sen. Janet Howell (D-32), speaking Thursday, Jan. 5, before leaders of the Greater Reston Chamber of Commerce, which represents 900 businesses.

Gov. Mark Warner's (D) proposed budget includes $625 million in new transportation spending over the next two years. In Northern Virginia, the one-time spending package would pay for projects such as widening the westbound lanes of I-66.

However, to truly alleviate congestion in Northern Virginia it would cost more than $1 billion annually for the next 25 years, according a new report by the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority.

Calling transportation "the 600-pound gorilla," Del. Ken Plum (D-36) told the Reston business leaders that Virginia needs to invest in its transportation infrastructure with a permanent stream of funding.

"We need a long, sustained source of revenue for transportation," Plum said. "We ought to think about making an investment."

DETAILS OF many transportation bills set to be considered during the General Assembly session have not yet been announced. However, a few proposals have already emerged.

"There are still more things undecided than decided at this point," Plum said. "That's just the nature of the General Assembly."

Gov.-elect Tim Kaine (D) is expected to push legislation that would allow local governments to reject rezoning applications on the basis of the development's projected transportation impact.

By tying land-use decisions with transportation, the thinking goes, it would allow local governments to ensure that the road infrastructure is sufficient to handle new growth.

Kaine has hosted 10 town halls around Virginia to listen to ideas on transportation. "There's not a lot of consensus on transportation around the commonwealth, but I don't think that'll stop him," Howell said.

Another idea, backed by Del. Dave Albo (R-42), would require motorists to pay fines if they are convicted of driving offenses — such as reckless or aggressive driving, driving on a suspended license or driving while intoxicated.

Based on legislation passed in New Jersey, Albo estimates his bill could raise $140 million each year for transportation projects. Last year, Albo introduced a similar bill with Del. Tom Rust (R-86) that passed the House of Delegates but ultimately failed in the Senate.

One proposal unlikely to gain much traction this year is increasing the gas tax, which has stayed flat since 1986. Had the gas tax been gradually increased at the rate of inflation, Plum said, it could have raised "hundreds of millions of dollars" for transportation projects.

IN 2004, Virginia was faced with a looming financial crisis. But after a bitter marathon session, lawmakers from both parties worked together and closed a $6 billion shortfall, while increasing state spending in core services.

Now, Plum and Howell said, Virginia is faced with a worsening transportation crisis and a fight similar to the 2004 budget deadlock might be on the horizon.

"The coalition we formed on the 2004 tax issue will not hold on transportation," said Howell, warning Reston business leaders that competing regional priorities could spell doom for a major new transportation investment.

Toni-Michelle Travis, a George Mason University political science professor, said it appears lawmakers from elsewhere in Virginia are beginning to realize that Northern Virginia's transportation problems affect the rest of the commonwealth.

"It's starting to dawn on people outside Northern Virginia that we are the economic engine driving the rest of the state," she said. "If quality of life is declining here, it hurts everyone because this is where the money and the jobs are."

If sufficient action on transportation is not taken during the legislative session, both Plum and Howell said a good chance exists that Kaine will re-convene the lawmakers for a special session.

Plum and Howell also said they support the idea of another transportation referendum, similar to the failed Northern Virginia referendum in 2002.

"It's kind of the best deal for us," Plum said. A regional referendum keeps local funding in Northern Virginia, he said, rather than siphoning off the cash for projects elsewhere in the state.

THOUGH OTHER issues were discussed Thursday morning at the Hyatt at Reston Town Center, members of the business community said they were most concerned about transportation — a problem growing so bad it may be hindering economic development.

"There are a lot of priorities important to the Reston business community, but we're all looking forward to a couple months of focusing on transportation," said Mindy Williams, a lobbyist with Access Point Public Affairs and co-chair of the chamber's public policy committee.

The General Assembly has not comprehensively addressed transportation in Virginia since 1986.

"Why has it taken us 19 years to get here again?" asked Matt Brennan, an attorney and member of the Greater Reston Chamber of Commerce.