Transportation Meltdown?

Transportation Meltdown?

General Assembly Notebook

A much-ballyhooed transportation compromise fell flat last week when it was killed by VirginiaÕs Senate Finance Committee.

Republican leaders, who hold a majority in both houses of the General Assembly had been stuck in a stalemate for more than a year over how to raise funds for transportation improvements across Virginia.

Members of the state Senate largely backed a plan which raised some fees and taxes. House Republicans favored using surpluses Ñ which they projected to continue in perpetuity Ñ and a transfer of funds from other state programs.

Over the past few months, party leaders announced they had worked out a compromise, to raise some fees, allow Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads to tax themselves for regional projects and shift some money from other state programs.

The plan passed through committee in the House of Delegates. Northern VirginiaÕs delegation was mixed on the proposal. Del. Vince Callahan (R-34) voted for it, Del. Bob Brink (D-48) voted against it and Del. Jim Scott (D-53) abstained.

But Feb. 1, the proposal died in the Senate 11-4. Seven of the no votes came from Republican senators. Both Northern Virginians on the Senate committee, Janet Howell (D-32) and Dick Saslaw (D-35) voted against the plan.

Attorney General Bob McDonnell (R) released a statement on Friday blasting the committee members for scuttling the compromise bill.

ÒThe very disappointing committee action demonstrates a glaring absence of spending restraint, and a disregard for a spirit of compromise,Ó said McDonnell, who had been instrumental in crafting the compromise position.

In its place, the Senate committee passed a bill which would impose a 5 percent sales tax on gas, increase vehicle registration fees by $10, allow Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads localities to implement a half-percent sales tax for transportation and increase the tax on diesel fuel by 1.5 cents per gallon. This version passed out of committee 9-6, both Howell and Saslaw supported the measure.

The full Senate also approved the bill 39-0, with Sen. Charles Hawkins (R-Chatham) not voting.

The full House has not yet voted on the Republican plan. If it does pass, a compromise is still possible. Negotiators from each chamber will be chosen and will meet in a conference committee to work out yet another compromise bill. The scenario allows flexibility since all of the funding options remain on the table.

"We're obviously hopeful that the House and the Senate will sit down and compromise," said Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerry Connolly (D).

Last yearÕs efforts died in the conference committee. If the year passes with no transportation plan, voters can expect to hear a lot about the issue in NovemberÕs election.

<sh>Life for Red Light Cameras?

<bt>A bill to allow localities the use of red light cameras is likely to pass through the General Assembly after years of languishing in committee.

Local governments had been permitted to use cameras to catch red light runners, but that authority expired in June 2005. Many jurisdictions that had the cameras in Northern Virginia left the cameras up, but no longer used them to issue tickets.

Legislators from Northern Virginia had reintroduced the bill, but the House of Delegates' committee on Militia, Police and Public Safety rejected it repeatedly.

Supporters of the cameras say that they reduce the number of dangerous T-bone collisions and help to manage traffic. Opponents say that the cameras are simply a cash cow for localities and consider it to be an invasion of privacy.

But this year, the bill authorizing the cameras went to the House transportation committee, which overwhelmingly supported the measure. The full House approved the bill Feb. 5, by a 61-37 margin.

A similar bill passed the Senate, and the differences will need to be sorted out by negotiators. If they can reach an accord, and the governor approves, the cameras could be operating July 1.