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Votes

Roads in Quagmire

The votes may be in but the debate on Virginia's transportation funding package is far from over.

Elected officials are still fighting over the merits of the transportation bill that passed both houses of the Virginia General Assembly last weekend. The legislation is the most successful attempt to provide a comprehensive revenue package for the state transportation needs since the late 1980s but several key lawmakers, including Gov. Timothy Kaine (D), have called it inadequate.

"When the conference report on a long-term revenue package for transportation was developed, too few people were involved, and as a result, the bill on its way to my desk is not only insufficient to address Virginia's needs, but contains numerous issues to address," said Kaine in a press release.

The governor said he plans to make his own changes to the bill before the General Assembly meets again to review it April 4. He is conducting a statewide tour over the next month to gather citizen input on transportation issues.

IF KAINE CHOOSES to veto the bill, Republican leadership would need at least two-thirds of both the House of Delegates and the Senate’s approval. The bill passed the House of Delegates easily, with a 64 to 34 vote, but barely squeaked by in the Senate with a 21 to 18 vote.

Crafted by the General Assembly's Republican leadership, the bill provides $2.5 billion over the next eight years for transportation statewide using borrowed money. It includes specific transportation packages for Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia but they are mostly funded through regional taxes and fees administered through the local governments.

The Northern Virginia tax package — which is an all-or-nothing deal in terms of receiving funding — would include an increase on hotel and car rental taxes, a new home sales fee and a new commercial real estate tax. There would also be an increase in the drivers’ license fee for most residents.

If approved by Arlington, Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun counties, the new taxes and fees could generate $500 million in extra transportation funding per year for Northern Virginia.

Reckless drivers statewide would be subjected to heftier fines but residents in most other parts of the commonwealth, with the exception of those living in Hampton Roads, would experience only a $10 increase in their vehicle registration as a result of the bill. General Assembly members purposefully avoided taxing most residents by using a loan to pay for the bulk of statewide transportation initiatives.

The bill calls for the borrowed money to be repaid using up to $187 million from the state general fund per year. Kaine and other critics have said the state needs a new funding source for transportation, such as a modest increase in gasoline tax and that monies out of the general fund, which are used for education, public safety and anti-poverty programs, should not be used for transportation.

“IT IS WRONG to borrow $2.5 billion with no new revenue source to repay it. We have a responsibility to solve that now,” said state Sen. Mark Herring (D-33) who voted against the bill.

Herring also objected to the Northern Virginia portion of the bill, saying it was unfair to pass off taxing responsibilities entirely to the local governments.

“The bill does not provide one penny of additional revenue in the Northern Virginia package. It was wrong for us to shift the responsibility to local officials to do what we ourselves were not willing to do,” said Herring.

Herring said he was also concerned that some of Northern Virginia’s local governments would choose not to adopt the additional taxes and that the region would lose some of its transportation money.

Herring and other General Assembly members may have reason to be concerned. The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted Feb. 26 to ask Kaine to veto the bill if certain provisions weren’t removed.

Local officials appeared most worried about a provision that requires local governments adopting the taxes to assume responsibility over the planning and construction of their secondary roads.

Board chairman Gerry Connolly said the members of the General Assembly had not consulted with Fairfax County before including the provision and that there is no estimate of how much it might cost. The provision could force counties to staff their own transportation departments.

“We either have the option of creating a transportation department or turning that responsibility over to homeowners associations and creating a burden for residents. And that won’t help with our affordable housing goal,” said Supervisor Michael Frye (R-Sully).

But supporters of the transportation bill have said that an imperfect funding agreement is better than nothing at all.

“WE BELIEVE imperfections exist in the bill but we are supportive of passing legislation this year. To defeat the bill and to lose this money because it is not perfect would be very injurious to Northern Virginia,” said Bob Chase, president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance.

Chase and other supporters said this session, coming right before every member of the General Assembly is up for re-election, poses the best chance for getting a transportation bill passed.

“This is what we could not do for two years in a special session. If you think next year there will be a change in [the General Assembly’s political] leadership and you are going to get a change, you are out of your mind. Rural legislators are only participating because of the nature of this year,” said state Sen. Jay O’Brien (R-39), who supported the bill.