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Warner Offers $824 Million Transportation Plan

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 10, 2004; Page B01

RICHMOND, Dec. 9 -- Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner announced plans Thursday for a one-time, $824 million boost in road and transit spending but said he will not push for a comprehensive solution to the state's transportation problems during his last year in office.

The Democratic governor said he will call on the Republican legislature to approve "smart, innovative" proposals to boost transportation efforts by private companies and local governments, help pay for Metrorail and train cars, and pay off long-standing debts on road projects. But he acknowledged that his plan will do little to address Virginia's need for billions of dollars of road construction and maintenance.

Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner presents his transportation plan: "This will not, in the end, solve all of our transportation issues." (Steve Helber -- AP)

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"This will not, in the end, solve all of our transportation issues," Warner said at a Richmond news conference. "It will be trying new ways to deal with transportation."

Warner's plan does not respond to pleas from transportation advocates to seek big, new sources of money for roads and rail. In 1999, former governor Gerald L. Baliles (D) urged resisting "the siren song -- the Lorelei of Virginia politics -- that we can just get along with an incremental fix here or a commission there." In a speech last month, Baliles renewed his call for a comprehensive solution, saying politicians should "do something about Virginia's growing transportation nightmare."

But Warner, who fought a nasty, protracted battle during the 2004 legislative session over taxes for state services, suggested Thursday that he has no interest in a similar fight on transportation when the 2005 session convenes next month.

"Are you looking to cancel your spring vacation one more time?" he joked to the reporters and lobbyists assembled at the Capitol.

Warner, who often says he bears the scars from the defeat in 2002 of transportation tax proposals in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, is not alone in his hesitance. Despite years of mounting pressure from commuters, business executives and freight operators, Virginia's leading politicians have all but rejected proposals to raise the gasoline tax, restrict growth or revamp the state's formula for distributing road money.

House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), who met Thursday with members of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, suggested streamlining public-private partnerships on transportation. One "no-brainer," he said, is to require that transportation funds be put in a "lockbox" so they cannot be diverted. He also mentioned a proposal to increase fines for repeat traffic offenders. He said he plans to present his own transportation package Monday.

But to the dismay of some at the chamber, he made clear that he opposes any gas tax increase to finance new spending by the Virginia Department of Transportation.

"It's just not the right time to add another 10 cents a gallon," Howell said.

William D. Lecos, chief executive of the chamber, accused Howell and Warner of "tinkering around what is the political reality of this session." But he added that their refusal to consider a gas tax increase is not all negative.

"It has, in fact, had the positive effect of pushing people to be more creative," Lecos said.

Some road and transit advocates and local government officials praised Warner's ideas.

Former Fairfax City mayor John Mason said the governor's proposals represent a "cultural shift" toward more money for transit. The plan would provide $80 million to help purchase Metrorail and Virginia Railway Express cars.

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