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No 'Getting Around' the Subject

Talk of transportation dominates Shannon's town hall meeting.

Although it was Del. Steve Shannon's (D-35) meeting, and one of his two guest speakers was Gov. Tim Kaine's senior special assistant for policy, it was Doug Koelemay who ended up doing most of the talking. Koelemay is Northern Virginia's representative to the Commonwealth Transportation Board and the Lee District representative to the Tysons Task Force. Accordingly, he discussed the region's transportation issues, and the picture he painted was not pretty.

Transportation problems are not just inconvenient, Koelemay told the residents who had assembled at the Vienna Town Hall to discuss upcoming legislative session. "If Inova's having to helicopter more emergency patients to their hospital because ambulances can't move, that's a huge cost," he said. He also noted that it is not cheap to build more fire stations because traffic is slowing response time for emergency vehicles.

He quoted former President Lyndon Johnson as having said, "The first role of government is to keep things from getting worse too fast." "In this transportation crisis," said Koelemay, "we really are in danger, in the next two years, of things getting worse too fast, and we will lose our ability to catch up."

THE CURRENT BUDGET for the state's six-year plan is $7.1 billion, to be spread across more than 2,000 projects, he said. An additional $2.3 billion is budgeted for public transportation. Although that may sound like a lot of money, said Koelemay, it is not enough.

About 70 percent of the transportation budget is made up of federal dollars, compared to about a 50-50 split between federal and state dollars in most states' transportation budgets, he said. Most of the federal funding will be spent on a few major projects like rebuilding the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, widening Interstate 66 and continuing construction of the "Mixing Bowl" interchange. Smaller local projects depend on slimmer state funds.

Without "substantial new dedicated funding," he said, many projects included in the state's six-year plan will not be completed. At the current rate, he added, "by 2012, in fact, the state won't have the funds to match the federal funds that will be available to the state."

Koelemay laid blame for the situation on various unnamed members of the General Assembly who were "either frozen in their indifference or frozen in their ideology that doesn't let them address practical problems." In spite of the efforts of "responsible" leaders like Kaine and Shannon, he said, "what was a two-month session turned into a nine-month exercise in futility." He insisted that transportation is not a partisan issue and should not be viewed as such. "There may come a time when we need to change some of those people," he said.

Northern Virginia, he said, would feel the lack of funds sorely because the region has the largest set of transportation needs. He also noted that, under the current system of prioritizing projects, "any unpaved road has priority over anything that goes on in Vienna or Oakton."

THE COMMONWEALTH Transportation Board now has a strategic review underway with the Department of Rail and Public Transportation to determine "how they can meet their commitments in the absence of dedicated funding," said Koelemay, noting that support for public transit systems is at a "historic low."

One of DRPT's projects is the much-contested Dulles rail project. Negotiations are underway to make the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority the public-sector partner in the project, he said, emphasizing that much uncertainty remains as to what both the funding and the design for the construction will look like. "That agreement has been very difficult to work out, and negotiations are still underway between the state and the Airports Authority," he said, adding that he has urged Kaine to push for an agreement by the end of the year.

On a happier note, Koelemay noted that bicycle and pedestrian accommodations are now being incorporated into all road projects other than interstates. Two percent of a project's funds are dedicated to widening and improving shoulders to create bike lanes. Also, he said, the Safe to Schools program is setting aside money to help create safe pedestrian routes for children to walk to school.

Koelemay also drew attention to a new policy being adopted by the Transportation Board, to take effect in January, that will allow localities such as Vienna, which are considered to be "urban areas," greater flexibility in terms of defining their own projects and applying funds. "We are getting away from one-size-fits-all," he said.

However, he noted, the overall budget for such urban systems improvement was slashed by almost two-thirds, a reduction which he called "totally unacceptable."

He later offered the planned reconstruction of Cottage Street as an example. "It's been advertised. We just can't award a contract because there's not enough money," he said. "We are about to have to start cannibalizing. That's not going to be fun."

THIS YEAR'S SESSION, Shannon noted, is what is known as a "short session." The two-year budget was set last year, and the primary goal of this session, which will begin Jan. 10, is to "reconcile receipts and expenditures," he said. Short sessions last between 30 and 60 days.

"This coming session, Gov. Kaine is going to place particular emphasis on health care reform," said Shannon, noting that the cost of health care is "skyrocketing" and "has the potential to eat up a huge portion of the budget."

Steven Gould, senior special assistant to the governor for policy, spoke about what has been accomplished in the 10 months since Kaine took office. "The new budget has a record investment in K-12 education," said Gould, noting that this included a 4 percent pay raise for teachers. The youngest students will be an the next education priority, he said. "While we're going to be focusing on health care during the upcoming session, pre-K will be a big focus during the 2008 session." Gould said Kaine is already beginning to explore ways to increase pre-kindergarten options.

He mentioned the passage of a "pretty significant" higher education research package, which he said the government hoped would stimulate growth at universities and possibly result in some health care breakthroughs in college laboratories. Also, he added, this was the first year that Virginia residents enjoyed a back-to-school sales tax holiday, during which the sales tax on school supplies, clothing and computers was suspended for a day.

Gould said $120 million were invested this year in mental health care in order that more patients could be treated in their own community rather than being institutionalized.

He also noted that Virginia's estate tax was eliminated, while the government strengthened the land conservation tax credit, "which is a really critical tool in helping to preserve acres across the state from development."

"So we were able to tie those two things together," he said. Also, $200 million were set aside to continue efforts to clean and preserve the Chesapeake Bay.

On the transportation front, he said, efforts are being made to better link land use and transportation, in large part by requiring the Virginia Department of Transportation to provide localities with projections of the traffic implications any proposed development could have, if localities request the numbers.

In the coming session, said Gould, Kaine hopes to pass a constitutional amendment that would lock up the transportation trust fund, so that money dedicated for transportation projects cannot be used for anything else.

Part of the proposed health care reform will be legislation to allow small businesses with 50 or less employees to pool together to buy health coverage for workers. Also, said Gould, "it's incredibly important to improve long-term care for seniors," so that fewer seniors will have to move into rest homes.

He said the governor has also set goals to preserve an additional 400,000 acres of open space and to increase the number of third-graders passing the Standards of Learning reading test.

WHEN THE CROWD was asked for questions and comments, Vienna resident Lynn Sanderson asked why Interstate 81 could not be lighted and widened.

Koelemay agreed that the highway, which is narrow and carries heavy truck traffic, and along which many colleges and universities are situated, needed improvement. "It's absolutely scary," he said. He noted that some improvements were in the works and that a "heartland corridor," running through Virginia north to Columbus, Ohio had been proposed. "We could do more faster if we had some additional resources," he said.

Gayle Rubin asked where cost estimates for the Dulles rail project stood.

"I think the costs will be significantly more than what is publicly being talked about," said Koelemay, noting that no solid numbers are yet available. "We'll look at the cost estimate we get next year."

He said a tunnel under Tysons would be "easier to interface with Metro" and would have a longer life expectancy because it would not be exposed to the elements. However, he said, he disagreed with the notion that an elevated rail would necessarily be an eyesore. "Just because it's above ground doesn't mean it can't be aesthetically pleasing," he said, although he noted that it would cost more to make such a rail look nice. He insisted that the impact on surrounding businesses should be taken into more consideration than keeping the cost down.

VDOT is currently undertaking a region-wide traffic study because a rail through Tysons is expected to impact traffic within a 20-mile radius, said Koelemay. "The malls themselves don't see that as a significant factor to their own sales," he said. "I think other businesses in Tysons see the inability to move their employees in and out predictably as being the larger problem. I guess they figure if we really need to shop, we'll still go there."

Roy Baldwin of Vienna asked whether tunneling was still an option.

Koelemay said there is currently "no process on the table" for a tunnel to be considered. However, he said, many factors could intervene between now and a final planning stage.

Oakton resident Bruce Bennett predicted that a tunnel might be so cost-prohibitive that insisting on it might result in the loss of government funding for the project.

"I don't think you're going to see officials and the public give up on any options," Koelemay responded. He said he hoped the Airports Authority might bring more creative approaches to the process.

One of the charges against Kaine as he was running for governor was that he would increase taxes on gasoline, said resident Anders Warga, noting that he had favored the idea then and still did. "We need money for transportation," he said. "I realize it's a touchy subject for a governor to consider."

Shannon noted that Kaine was currently focusing on health care reform, but, he said, "I don't think any tax vehicle should be immediately taken off the table."

Drawing the meeting to a close, Shannon thanked residents for coming and encouraged them to stay in touch with him. "The best ideas I have come from my constituents," he said.