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Going 'Outside the Box' on Transportation

Some Advocates in Va. Say Unorthodox Funding Proposals Won't Solve Problem

By Michael D. Shear and Steven Ginsberg
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 4, 2005; Page B03

Just hours after Virginia lawmakers formally abandoned their effort to deal with the state's transportation problems last May, Gov. Mark R. Warner declared himself hopeful and said, "There's always next year."

His chief Republican adversary in the legislature, House Speaker William J. Howell (Stafford), said transportation was "something we should have addressed."

Warner, right, with Finance Secretary John M. Bennett, has proposed an infusion of $824 million for transportation. (Steve Helber -- AP)

Transportation Proposals

Here are some of the ideas for improving roads and rails that will come before the 2005 legislative sessions in Virginia and Maryland.

Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D): Proposes a $824 million boost in road and transit spending, mostly for the current budget. No tax increase.

Virginia House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford): Will propose a plan to spend about $1.8 billion on transportation over the next six years without raising taxes. The plan is similar to Warner's but would provide more than $300 million in annual financial commitments to transportation.

Virginia Republican Delegates: Several delegates propose raising about $140 million a year for roads, bridges, tunnels and transit by increasing fines on bad drivers. Other delegates are pushing a plan to raise billions of dollars for transportation by increasing borrowing.

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R): Seeks funding for the intercounty connector, an east-west highway in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. He also supports raising as much as $90 million for transportation with new or higher fees, primarily by increasing financial penalties for drunk drivers. No tax increases.

But even though the state's infrastructure is crumbling, its roads and transit systems are jammed and its transportation funds are dwindling, Warner and legislators have concluded that they should not seek broad changes or new taxes that could fundamentally reshape the state's travel system.

Instead, the Democratic governor and the Republican lawmakers are each preparing to stake a claim to modest but innovative transportation programs, which they say will ease congestion and which also are politically possible in an election year. The General Assembly convenes Jan. 12.

"It's an approach that says simply more money alone may not get us to the transportation solutions we want," Warner said in an interview.

Howell said, "We can't continue to say, 'Let's raise the gas tax 10 cents and everything will be fine.' "

Some longtime advocates of greater transportation spending say such comments are excuses to avoid confronting reality: The last time taxes were increased to pay for roads was in 1986. Meanwhile, there are tens of thousands of new cars and many new commuters.

"This business of thinking outside the box -- that's nice rhetoric, but infrastructure costs money," said Bob Chase, president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance. "After 18 years of really bipartisan neglect, you can't pretend that somehow you can solve this problem without a serious infusion of revenue."

Maryland politicians also plan to pursue a handful of specific proposals rather than engaging in an overall debate about raising transportation taxes, state lawmakers said.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) is seeking funding for the intercounty connector, an east-west highway in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. He also supports raising as much as $90 million with new or higher fees. Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers say they see no point in pressing for higher taxes that Ehrlich might veto.

"We just have to accept gridlock under this governor until we can hopefully make some changes," said Del. Peter Franchot (D-Montgomery), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on transportation.

In Virginia, Warner says approval of his Transportation Partnership Act, a largely one-time infusion of $824 million, would shake up a bureaucracy that has gotten far too used to doing things the standard way.

The plan would pay off $256 million in transportation deficits, clearing the books for new investment. It would help pay for train cars and rail improvements. It would create funds to encourage local governments and private companies to build roads.

"If they can do it cheaper and more efficiently, let's let them try," Warner said.

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