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Va. Nears Deal on Transit Package

Road, Rail Projects To Get $850 Million

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 24, 2005; Page A01

RICHMOND, Feb. 23 -- Virginia budget negotiators said Wednesday that the General Assembly is virtually certain to approve by Saturday the largest one-time infusion of cash for transportation projects in decades.

The decision would make good on a pledge put forth by lawmakers last year as they raised taxes for core services but abandoned efforts to boost spending on transportation.

_____Live Online_____
Transcript: The Post's Michael D. Shear took questions on the Virginia session, which is set to adjourn this week.
_____Virginia Government_____
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Full Report
Va. Transportation Plans

A recent state report estimated that Virginia will need to spend more than $203 billion on its transportation network by 2025. The state expects to have $95 billion over that time period.

The problem: As construction and maintenance costs have risen, the state has had less money for new projects. State officials estimate that their entire transportation budget will go toward maintenance by 2018. The current six-year transportation plan includes $6.3 billion, $5.3 billion for highway needs and $1 billion for transit projects.

Finding money: Lawmakers have split over how to raise money for new projects. Many would increase gas taxes, which provide most of the funding for transportation, but others prefer tolls. Some argue that nothing should be done until there is a constitutional amendment that protects the transportation trust fund from being used for other things.

Strategy: Lawmakers have increasingly sought out public-private partnerships to advance construction. These plans also rely on tolls but relieve the state from a portion of start-up, construction and maintenance costs.

What to build: The list of major proposals includes a river crossing in Hampton Roads, a highway in the mountains of southwest Virginia and a rail link to Tysons Corner and Dulles Airport. A new Interstate 66 interchange in Gainesville, a carpool link through the Springfield Mixing Bowl and the widening of Interstate 95 also top the list of needs in Northern Virginia.

-- Steven Ginsberg

Doing so represents a victory for House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) and Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), both of whom had urged lawmakers to use most of the state's $1.2 billion surplus to kick-start construction of roads, trains, bridges and tunnels.

"Providing the largest investment for Virginia's roads, rail, transit, airports and seaports in nearly 20 years is real progress," Howell said in a statement. He said the money would be used to advance "reforms and innovations [that improve] the safe and reliable movement of people and products, a cornerstone of Virginia's economic success."

Warner spokeswoman Ellen Qualls said "the agreement on the dollar figure, close to what the governor proposed, is great news. What we'll be looking for is to make sure that a number of the innovative new approaches the governor proposed are part of the final package."

Budget negotiators continued Wednesday night to discuss the details of the transportation plan. They moved closer to compromise in other areas, including money for health care and the environment. They approved salary increases for state workers and sheriff deputies, as well as for the governor and attorney general. Lawmakers said they expected to reach a final budget deal by Thursday.

Although some of those issues remain contentious, lawmakers said transportation was the key hurdle to a budget deal this year.

Senior lawmakers reached agreement to spend $850 million on road construction and expanded rail service as part of the update to the state's two-year, $60 billion budget. The compromise between House and Senate budget negotiators was enthusiastically endorsed by the House Republican caucus Wednesday. The deal still must be approved as part of the state's budget changes by the full House and Senate membership.

But lawmakers, lobbyists and political observers said approval of the package will not quell the debate over whether to raise billions of dollars more for transportation with additional higher taxes.

Virginia Commonwealth University Prof. Robert D. Holsworth predicted it would be an issue in this fall's governor's race. "The debate about your position on taxes will be related to your position on transportation," he said.

The legislative agreement does not spell out which road or rail projects would be funded with the additional cash.

Senators, meanwhile, have made it clear that they see this year's action as a down payment on a much larger transportation package for next year.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman John H. Chichester (R-Northumberland) said he plans to press for a comprehensive package after November's House of Delegates elections. He was coy about what taxes he will seek to increase but said his proposal could look similar to one he made last year to raise gas and other taxes by $800 million annually.

"This isn't even a beginning toward the solution to our transportation dilemma," Chichester said of this week's compromise. He said the transportation spending package will do some good, but then he called it "minuscule." He hinted at his desire for higher taxes by saying that transportation cannot be improved in Virginia only with innovative ideas and outside-the-box thinking.

"You don't buy asphalt, concrete, rail and buses with innovation," he said. "You simply can't spend thoughts out of the box."

But House GOP leaders said they will resist attempts by senators to raise taxes next year for transportation. They said revenue from the gas tax is declining because cars are more fuel efficient, making it a poor way to finance road construction.

And they said there is no need to raise taxes as long as the state's economy is producing surplus revenue, as it did this year.

"The problem with John [Chichester] is that everything is a tax increase," said House Majority Whip M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights).

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