Questions covered the gamut from transportation to land use to taxes to Washington Gas outsourcing jobs to BRAC to affordable housing. But, the prime focus remained transportation.
The scene was the first Town Meeting, hosted by State Senator Linda T. "Toddy" Puller (D-36) and State Delegate Kristen J. Amundson (D-44), since the commencement of the 2007 General Assembly on Jan. 10. The venue was the community room of the Sherwood Hall Regional Library on Sherwood Hall Lane last Saturday morning.
With constituents occupying every available seat and standing along the room's walls, Puller and Amundson, joined by William Murray, legislative director, Office of the Governor, and J. Douglas Koelemay, Northern Virginia representative, Commonwealth Transportation Board, were peppered with inquires as to when some break could be expected in the transportation/no new taxes legislative deadlock. They all expressed optimism but promised nothing.
"We are going to try and change this deadlock in this election year. Some of those in Northern Virginia who have been against new taxes for transportation already have challengers and others are realizing they need to start solving problems. That's why they were elected," Amundson told the audience.
"But, there are still members of the Northern Virginia delegation who will not vote for more transportation taxes," Puller added. Transportation costs for this region comes in at about $700 million per year, according to state budgetary estimates according to Koelemay.
The primary problem rests with the procedural mechanism established in the House of Representatives' Republican Caucus, according to Amundson. "The Senate has agreed to discuss the issue. The problem is the house," Amundson said.
"Because the Republican Caucus takes ‘binding votes’ when they discuss legislation, any Republican who votes contrary to the agreed upon caucus vote on a given topic can lose their committee assignment. It only takes 29 people to block any action in the House. There are at least that many committed to no new taxes for transportation," she explained.
In answer to a constituent question concerning the return of tax dollars to this region in ratio to what is sent to Richmond, Amundson stated, "Right now Northern Virginia is getting more than one half of the federal money being spent statewide on highways and transportation due to the Springfield Interchange and Woodrow Wilson Bridge projects."
She also pointed out that 45 percent of the secondary road monies is being spent in Northern Virginia. That brought forth the observation from one constituent, "Building more roads only increases traffic and congestion. We all have to change our way of living."
KICKING OFF the 90 minute Town Meeting, Murray said, "If you are coming to Northern Virginia for business you have to plan your trip so as not to arrive before 10 a.m. and make sure you leave no later than 2 p.m. And, there is still no guarantee you won't end up in gridlock."
He noted that Governor Timothy Kaine's legislative priorities are transportation, land use and health care. "Health has not been a strength in Virginia until this Governor," he said.
"People get good care when they become sick. What we don't do very well is keep people healthy," Murray said.
One of the reasons for this is that state spending is driven by issues that are more important to younger people such as education, according to Murray. Conversely, federal spending is driven by defense and the elderly, he noted.
Two other Kaine agenda priorities are natural resources, particularly as that applies to cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay, and preserving open space. "If we don't meet the 2011 deadline for cleaning up the bay, EPA (U.S.Environmental Protection Agency) will mandate it for us," Murray warned.
"Governor Kaine would like to preserve 400,000 acres of open space during his tenure," Murray said. The acreage was arrived at because this is Virginia's 400th Anniversary, according to Murray.
On the subject of transportation, Koelemay was quick to point out, "Transportation doesn't exist separate from what we do with the other aspects of our lives. It's all a network and it all needs to work together."
He warned that the region's transportation problems could lead to a brain drain for the state that would have a negative ripple effect on the economy. "Our region's economy is driven by the creative class. They can live anywhere in the world and do what they do for a living. It's not difficult for them to take their talents elsewhere if they feel living here is too stressful," he said.
"There is an old saying that congestion is free but transportation costs money. That's just not so. Congestion is not free it costs $5.49 billion a year if you add up all the hidden and obvious costs. Let's not pretend there is not a cost," Koelemay said.
"In the end transportation comes down to money," he said. He sighted as some of the escalating costs — construction materials, land acquisition and labor.
"There are just not enough materials to go around. If we had the money to build all the roads on the priority list right now we couldn't do it because there's not enough existing concrete," he cited as an example.
Other items of transportation that came under questioning were the scheduling of VRE trains on weekends, perceived congestion from the 22,000 plus personnel increase at Fort Belvoir and the Engineering Proving Grounds as a result of the Base Realignment and Closure Report, and county control over secondary road construction. "The last time Virginia adopted a budget that had money dedicated to transportation issues was 1986," Koelemay said.
He urged those present to go online and review a recent study on the entire transportation issue. It can be located at Transportation 30.com. It covers all aspects including bicycle use, walking trails, highways and mass transit, according to Koelemay.
Amundson maintained that a primary area where Northern Virginia gets shortchanged more so than in transportation is in the 35 percent of the state budget allocated to public education. "We need a lot more in this area," she said.
ON THE SUBJECT of affordable/workforce housing both Puller and Amundson noted they have legislation in the hopper to deal with this subject. Puller noted her bill would allow the Prince William County Board of Supervisors to subsidize workforce housing. Amundson's legislation is geared to both workforce housing and overall affordable housing.
Lorton area resident, Nan Tolbert, a long-time Washington Gas employee, raised the possibility of state intervention in the proposed outsourcing of customer service call centers by Washington Gas. "What can be done to halt that?" she asked.
"We are trying to ensure that our state agencies don't outsource. But, I'm not sure we can do anything about a private company outsourcing," Amundson said.
"Utilities come under the Public Utility Commission which is independent of the General Assembly and the Governor, although the members are appointed by the Governor. It is ruled by three judges," said Murray.
Prior to opening the meeting Amundson recognized the first place winners of her annual elementary school art contest. They were:
Abdulla Jastaniah, 6th grade, Islamic Saudi Academy; Luke Penny, 4th grade, Waynewood Elementary; Lijah Webb, 2nd grade, Groveton Elementary; Sandra-Alexis Chevelle Rodriguez, 4th grade, Hybla Valley Elementary; and Leslie Ann Whisenant, 4th grade, Fort Hunt Elementary.