As the General Assembly begins to hammer out a transportation plan for the Commonwealth of Virginia, three representatives from Richmond shared the process with their constituents. Delegates Dave Marsden (D-41) and David Bulova (D-37) brought governor's chief of staff Bill Leighty to a town hall meeting Saturday, Feb. 25 at Bonnie Brae Elementary.
Transportation was the main topic in front of state and local officials at the meeting. Chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Gerry Connolly urged Marsden and Bulova not to "come back empty-handed." Fairfax County needs help with the transportation issue, he said.
"If we catch a cold, the rest of the state gets pneumonia," said Connolly. Northern Virginia is the economic engine for the rest of the state, he said.
Three different transportation proposals have made their way to the forefront: one from Gov. Tim Kaine (D), one from the House of Delegates, and one from the Senate.
Kaine’s plan adds to transportation funds with increased taxes on vehicle titling and auto insurance premiums, increased registration fees based on weight, and fees for traffic violators. The Senate plan proposes raising the vehicle title tax and registration fees. It would not include abuser fees but would apply a sales tax to wholesale gasoline and to auto repair service. Both these plans would match earmarks from the U.S. government of one-time surplus general funds for transportation.
The House plan would not raise taxes. Rather, it would rededicate existing general funds to transportation: $565 million of the existing recordation tax, $258 million from the 0.25 percent of the sales tax, and $277 million from current insurance premium taxes.
The Senate and Governor's plans will raise $4 billion over four years for transportation, while the House Republicans' plan will raise $2 billion over four years.
"Transportation is different wherever you go and you have to find a communal language you all can speak," said Marsden. "In Hampton Roads, it's tunnels and river crossings, in southwest Virginia it's coal trucks and potholes." What will likely happen, he said, is that the House will reject the Senate plan, the Senate will reject the House plan, and both bodies will come together to craft a joint legislation.
The House Republican plan had its strong points and its weak points, said Bulova. He voted for an amendment that acknowledged the needs of Northern Virginia but voted against the plan in its entirety, he said. While the plan allows the need for dedicated funding streams for transportation, said Bulova, the way it goes about that funding is less than ideal.
Marsden, who also voted against the House plan, agreed. "The goal is raising money so we don't have to be here next year," he said. "If the House Republican plan goes through, we'll be here next year."
The House Republican plan subtracts money from necessary existing programs, said Leighty, citing education, the sex offender registry, and community colleges as some programs that will be affected.
"We have to have a smart, reliable plan for transportation," said Leighty. Counting on the current $1 billion surplus is not a good idea, he said, because the main sources of that surplus — corporate income taxes, recordation taxes, and nonwithholding taxes — are not permanent. Instead, said Leighty, the surplus money should go to one-time projects such as improvements on mental health facilities, or college dormitories.
Burke resident Phil Esposito said he was concerned that high-profile issues such as high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes will take center stage in the transportation debate. "I think 'Lexus lanes,' or whatever you want to call [HOT lanes] is going to be a wedge issue," he said.
Bruce Neilson of Fairfax wondered how localities could acquire more clout in land-use decisions. According to Bulova, legislation is on the table giving local governments the ability to deny rezonings.
On Wednesday, Mar. 1, Speaker of the House of Delegates William Howell (R-Stafford) issued a statement reprimanding Leighty for his comments to an audience question about what action the Governor might take toward delegates who voted for the House transportation plan, where he suggested that some of their bills might be in danger.
" Not surprisingly, [the members of the House Republican caucus] share our deep distress," stated Howell. "Not only over the manner in which this new Administration may review legislation patroned by our members, but also over the criteria it will use to determine whether or not the Governor signs, amends or vetoes a Republican
bill." According to Howell, Leighty apologized for his remarks.
The General Assembly session has not been all about transportation, said Bulova. Hot topics in Richmond right now include red-light cameras, he said. The Senate hijacked a piece of legislation concerning police communication about red-light runners and put red-light cameras in its place, said Bulova. If the House speaker determines the legislation is germane, he said, then the legislation can bypass subcommittee and go straight to a full House vote.
"It's something that localities want, something I see as a valuable tool for police to use," said Bulova.
Audience member Chris Jones asked about the status of an legislation encouraging the use of alternate fuels.
Bulova said he had not heard of anything, and that if the legislation had not made it to the floor yet, that was not a good sign.
"I think Virginia can do a better job of having an energy policy that gets to some of those things," he said. He was hopeful, however, about HB 857, a bill encouraging environmentally sound building practices. The bill was continued to the 2007 session, and after some tweaking, said Bulova, might be in a successful position next year.