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Warner Rejects Raising Gas Tax

Governor Proposes Earmarking Surplus For Transportation

By Michael D. Shear and Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 18, 2004; Page B01

RICHMOND, Nov 17 -- Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) will propose a one-time cash infusion to build roads, bridges and transit projects across the state but will not call for higher taxes on gasoline when he presents his budget to lawmakers next month, he said in two speeches Wednesday.

Warner said the state's vibrant economy will produce as much as $900 million more in state revenue than had been projected, providing an opportunity to boost road construction that has been lagging for years.

In two speeches, Gov. Mark R. Warner said he would not seek to raise the state's gasoline tax to pay for transportation projects. (AP)

How Plan Would Work

Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) on Wednesday proposed the broad outlines of a four-point transportation plan he will present to Virginia lawmakers in January. It includes:

• A one-time infusion of cash to boost certain transportation projects. The money would come from higher-than-expected tax collections because of the state's booming economy.

• A renewed focus on mass transit, including finding new ways to pay for the high capital costs associated with rail cars.

• Giving local governments the ability to manage and build their own, smaller roads. Warner says many localities might do it faster and cheaper.

• A commitment to paying what the state still owes on road projects that are already finished. Warner said the deficits on some projects are eating into the state's future road money.

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Although he declined to say how much he wants to earmark for transportation, Warner also vowed to pay off years of accumulated transportation debt, renew the state's focus on mass transit and enable localities to build their own smaller roads.

Finding solutions to the state's transportation crisis has eluded the businessman-turned-governor, who is entering his last year in office. In 2002, voters defeated Warner-backed ballot measures in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads that would have pumped billions of dollars into road construction. And this year, Warner and lawmakers abandoned a $1.6 billion tax increase for transportation as too costly and politically risky.

Now, the governor says he wants to find modest ways to improve the situation for the state's frustrated commuters while recognizing the political reality that raising the gas tax -- the state's primary source of road-building money -- is unlikely to pass the General Assembly in an election year. The current tax is 17.5 cents per gallon.

"It's not going to be a part of our proposal. I don't see a lot of appetite for it," Warner said of the gas tax after speaking to business executives in Richmond. "Virginia has enormous unmet needs, [but] we're going to try some new things. We're going to try local control. We're going to look at rail and transit in a fresh way."

Warner said he would not provide details of his plan until after Thanksgiving, but he spoke broadly of a desire to get projects moving more quickly and to make better use of limited state resources.

"This program will make use of the resources we have available to us," Warner told members of the state's transportation board. "The transportation package . . . will be the next step in our continued efforts . . . to ease congestion, create jobs and make Virginia more economically competitive."

By redirecting smaller projects to the local level, Warner said, the state could slash some administrative costs. "Some of these communities believe they can do these projects quicker, smarter, cheaper," Warner said. "Let's give them a chance to try it."

Warner's proposals were met with disappointment by some of the state's leading business executives, who said they believe Virginia needs to invest more heavily in its road and transit network. Michael Anzilotti, the chairman of the Virginia Business Council, said no responsible politician should automatically reject raising the gas tax.

"I don't know how you can take the gas tax off the table when 10 cents would raise $500 million, and we've all seen gas prices go up and down 10 cents and it didn't affect anyone's driving habits," Anzilotti said. "Political purposes -- that's the only reason we are not going to do a gas tax increase."

But Warner's go-slower approach appears to be part of an emerging consensus among Republican and Democratic state leaders, including both men who are running for governor next year. The topic is likely to dominate the 2005 General Assembly session when legislators convene in Richmond on Jan. 12.

In speeches Wednesday to the Conference on Virginia's Future, House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore (R) and Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine (D) all embraced the idea of a one-time infusion of cash for roads, and all three strongly rejected an increase in the gas tax.

Howell said at the conference that his Republican caucus will be unveiling "innovative" transportation proposals in the next week or two. "I don't think anybody disagrees we need more money," he said. "But I don't think you are going to see it coming from the traditional sources."

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