Sitting behind a large desk overflowing with papers, Del. Tom Rust (R-86) unsuccessfully attempts to not sound like a broken record.
Discussing the top priorities of the General Assembly this session, which began Wednesday, Jan. 11, Rust finds himself repeatedly returning to the issue of transportation.
"I honestly think transportation is going to be the issue this year," Rust said from his Chantilly office a week before the session started. "The House and the Senate each have transportation plans and I assume Governor-elect [Tim] Kaine (D) will put something out, but no one knows what it is yet."
Last year, Rust and Del. Dave Albo (R-42) co-chaired a bill, dubbed the Abuser Bill, that proposed increasing penalties for hard-core traffic violators. Geared toward multiple offenders of Driving Under the Influence, reckless driving, hit and runs and other serious vehicular crimes, the bill successfully made it through the House, but was stopped by the Senate Financial Committee.
"The rationale by the Senate Finance Committee was, if this raised $105 million it still would not be enough," he said. "The problem is, transportation needs in Virginia are billions of dollars a year. This proposal was not near that amount, and the committee wanted to see a comprehensive approach to transportation."
THE ABUSER BILL is back this year, but with a much more general approach to tackle transportation funding issues.
Again co-sponsored by Rust and Albo, Rust did not want to release details of the new proposal before the session began.
"This is just one piece of a proposed solution," he said about the bill. "The assembly would like to see a complete package."
One thing that will not be in the proposed bill is an increase in the commonwealth's gas tax. Because an increase would be a flat source of revenue that would eventually have to be abandoned, because gas prices are already too high and because Kaine said he would not support a gas tax increase, an increase is not an option, Rust said.
Addressing the main issues of transportation funding, Northern Virginia elected officials hope to get 25 percent of the overall transportation budget set aside to address the increasing traffic problems in the region.
"All in all, I will be working with groups of Northern Virginia senators and delegates on a major transportation bill," he said. A portion of that funding would immediately go toward installing traffic signals, left hand turn lanes and fixing other traffic safety hazards in the region, he said.
Rust plans to request that clean-fuel burning cars be exempt from high occupancy vehicle (HOV) regulations when using the Dulles Toll Road HOV lanes. That current exception is due to expire July 1 of this year.
RUST WILL ALSO carry legislation focused on relieving enrollment pressures for state universities and colleges by making higher education more accessible in rural areas.
Because the commonwealth's public universities and colleges will not have enough space for the projected excess of 55,000 to 58,000 applicable students by 2012, Rust would like to see more Internet classes offered.
"Higher education is one of the most important tickets to a successful life," he said. "It's becoming more and more important in an educated economy that is transforming into a global workplace."
The intent of the varying legislation is for it to become self-sustaining in a few years, Rust said. Hope is that area businesses would also get involved, creating a hands-on learning environment for students.
Last year legislation was passed to redefine the relationship between the commonwealth and public universities and colleges, he said. The intent of the legislation was to allow the schools to operate more along the lines of a private business. But, in order to do that, the institutions had to agree with a list of standards set by the General Assembly. These included setting goals for graduation numbers each year, accepting a set number of in-state students each year and limiting the tuition increases each year, among other things, Rust said.
"The whole intent is to reduce the cost of running the universities, while increasing the quality of education," he said about the proposed legislation.
But, because it is a budget year, Rust anticipates the majority of the session will be spent determining how the $72 billion budget should be spent. With, of course, a large portion going toward transportation.
"I would hope," said Rust about this year's main goal, "we would be able to come together in a bipartisan effort and seriously address transportation."