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Va. GOP Devises Transit Proposal

Funds Dependent On Tax Revenue

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 11, 2004; Page B01

RICHMOND, Sept. 10 -- Republican lawmakers in Northern Virginia will propose a plan next week to generate $5 billion during the next 20 years for road and transit construction without raising gasoline taxes, according to one of the leaders of the group.

By borrowing against the tax revenue that residents pay on their insurance premiums, the GOP lawmakers say, the state could raise billions to build roads, bridges, transit systems, tunnels and interstates. But the plan counts on an improving economy boosting the state's tax revenue by $500 million to $700 million over the next two years. That would allow the state to use an equal amount from the insurance tax to pay off transportation bonds, supporters say.

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More than a dozen lawmakers are scheduled to unveil details of the proposed legislation at a news conference Tuesday.

"The key word is 'prioritize,' " said state Del. Timothy D. Hugo (R-Fairfax), who helped develop the proposal. "We have an excess surplus that will arrive in January. There will be a feeding frenzy of people who want to spend that money. What we are saying is prioritize it to transportation."

The lawmakers are to be joined by representatives from several Northern Virginia business groups who have lobbied for years for more transportation money. William D. Lecos, president and chief executive of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, said he believes the GOP proposal has merit.

"Would it be great if every surplus dollar went to transportation? You could certainly use it," Lecos said. "This is a starting point."

In their last session, lawmakers raised sales and other taxes by $1.5 billion to pay for increased spending on schools, colleges, public safety and health care. But virtually no new money was added to the state's struggling transportation program, which was forced to slash proposals already on the books.

Now, politicians in both parties say they want to address the vexing issue of transportation funding, perhaps as early as the next legislative session, in January.

Aides to Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) say he is actively developing his own proposals. Lawmakers close to Sen. John H. Chichester (R-Stafford) say the Finance Committee chairman is preparing his own plan. And Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) has appointed a committee of GOP House members and has hired an outside consultant to study the transportation problem.

"I think it's great we're all working on new ideas and different ways to approach it," Howell said. "I haven't dug into their proposals. We're looking at all sorts of options, and I'm sure this will be part of a much bigger package." But the GOP plan -- which was developed by Hugo and Del. David B. Albo and House Appropriations Chairman Vincent F. Callahan Jr., both of Fairfax -- is the first major proposal to be unveiled since the extended 2004 session ended in early May.

It would fund a spurt of transportation construction by relying on taxes that Virginia residents pay on their home, life and auto insurance premiums.

If that money was used to pay back state bonds, it could raise close to $5 billion over two decades for transportation. But that could also force the state to abandon other borrowing for prisons, schools and college buildings.

"It takes time to develop a dialogue," Hugo said. "You have to start these things early."

Initial reaction to the GOP plan was mixed.

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