Transportation in State of Disarray

Transportation in State of Disarray

A few county governments in Northern Virginia appear likely to split with their General Assembly counterparts over the legislature’s $2.5 billion transportation bill passed last month.

The legislation allows for approximately $400 million in dedicated Northern Virginia funding but only if the City of Alexandria and Fairfax, Prince William, Loudoun and Arlington counties agree to a package of local tax increases.

Members of the Board of Supervisors in Loudoun and Prince William counties said they were unlikely to support a proposal that will require them to raise taxes. Fairfax and Arlington county officials have also expressed serious reservations about the bill.

"There is not very much state money at all and it looks like there is not going to be a great deal of money available for public transportation. It is not really addressing our different needs," said Arlington County Board Member Chris Zimmerman (D).

LOCAL OFFICIALS appear to be at odds with some of their representatives in the General Assembly over the bill. Every Northern Virginia Republican in the General Assembly, with the exception of Del. Bob Marshall (R-13), supported the legislation and several local Democrats in the House of Delegates voted in favor of it.

Among the local governments, the Republican-dominated Prince William and Loudoun boards of supervisors appear the most adamantly opposed to the transportation package. Arlington and Fairfax, each controlled by Democrats, appear a little more open to accepting the Republican tax package if certain provisions, such as taking care of secondary road construction and planning, are removed.

Reasons for supporting the bill varied among General Assembly members. Most representatives called the legislation "flawed," but several felt it was the most viable transportation package that could be produced. Rural legislators are unlikely to revisit the transportation issue next session after state elections in November and the General Assembly will not be meeting before then, they said.

"This is the best we’ll ever do. The Southern guys don’t need roads. They adamantly refused to raise statewide taxes for roads and this bill doesn’t raise statewide taxes," said Del. David Albo (R-42).

Stewart Schwartz of the Washington Regional Network for Livable Communities said he believes lawmakers should be focusing on what VDOT would do with the statewide package rather than the source of the funding.

Schwartz said several of VDOT’s priority projects, such as expanding Interstate 81 to eight lanes, are impractical and unnecessary. He said a significant portion of the statewide money, which is separate from the Northern Virginia package, should be spent on Northern Virginia projects like expanding Interstate 66 outside the Beltway.

"Our concern is that current priorities being set by VDOT will result in significant inefficiencies in spending if the bill passes," said Schwartz.

SEVERAL DEMOCRATIC DELEGATES who voted for the bill also had concerns about the plan but believed that any transportation plan would be better than no transportation plan.

"It is a deeply flawed bill. The only feature of this plan I truly like is that it was starting right away" said Del. Dave Marsden (D-41).

Del. Chuck Caputo (D-67) added that Northern Virginia was in urgent need of transportation funding, and even if the bill wasn’t perfect, it should pass.

"We can’t wait any longer. We are at the start of a downhill ramp with respect to the economy. I am dedicated to making sure we have something that comes out of this legislative session," he said.

But several local legislators are irritated that the General Assembly, which increased a very small number of taxes statewide, has abdicated the bulk of the taxing responsibility and revenue generation to local governments Northern Virginia.

County boards of supervisors and General Assembly members are all up for election this year and many said it can be more difficult to get elected again after raising taxes.

"The No. 1 problem is that it seems like passing the buck to us," said Loudoun County Supervisor Mick Staton (R-Sugarland Run).

Staton also believes that the money raised by his constituents would most likely go to projects that benefit other parts of Northern Virginia.

"I am supposed to vote to raise taxes so I can give that money to Fairfax? All of that money is supposed to come from my constituents to be sent somewhere else?" he said.

Several local officials also complained that they had not been involved or consulted before the bill was passed.

"We weren’t allowed in any of the conversations about developing it in the first place. We didn’t get to see the bill until [the day it was passed]," said Zimmerman.

Marshall, who represents parts of Loudoun, Fairfax and Prince William counties in the General Assembly, said several members of the General Assembly also weren’t clued into the plan before it was presented. He added that he was particularly concerned that several of the localities had not been consulted since the bill was contingent on their cooperation.

"Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun had said they didn’t want to buy into it and the whole premise of the bill is based on these local governments raising their taxes," said Marshall. "I was skeptical about the whole purpose of this thing. I think it was passed partially to get people off the Republicans’ backs and to put the blame on the Supervisors."

HOUSE OF DELEGATES Democratic caucus leader Brian Moran (D-46) said many of the Democrats who supported the bill were less experienced.

"The more senior members who have been around for awhile and have experienced economic downturns and what those mean for the state budget, they all voted against the bill," said Moran. "Our newer members, particularly our freshman, felt that something was better than nothing."

Even Democrats who voted for the bill said they hope the governor would make several amendments. Some said they decided to vote for the transportation package simply to give Gov. Tim Kaine (D) a bill to work with.

Kaine said he must see fundamental changes to the bill or he will consider vetoing the legislation. He is particularly concerned about the bill’s impact on other state programs. The General Assembly version proposes using the state general fund to pay for transportation initiatives and Kaine said the fund is typically used for other purposes like public education and anti-poverty initiatives, not transportation.

"The bonding piece of the Republican proposal will have the state spending close to $200 million out of the general fund per year on transportation. That is not an insignificant amount. That is more than we spend on the state police every year and that is what we spend all of our natural resource agencies in a given year," said Kaine’s spokesperson Kevin Hall.

KAINE HOPES to find a new transportation-related source of revenue to fully fund the bill but several Northern Virginia Republican legislators worry that Kaine will erode support for the transportation plan if he introduces a statewide tax increase.

Albo said the bill was the only vehicle for getting Northern Virginia its badly needed transportation dollars and that several rural legislators would not be willing to support such a measure next year.

"The money will be gone for mass transit. Poof! Toast! There will not be another transportation plan for four years," said Albo.